Growing up with Mae Jemison — an engineer, physician and the first black female astronaut to go into space — as her childhood hero and inspiration, Dr. Kellie Middleton knew from an early age that she was going to be a doctor.
“I was going to be a doctor,” she said, “whether it was on earth or in space.”
But Middleton, now a chief resident in UPMC’s department of orthopedic surgery, ultimately decided to pursue medicine because of her aunt, a nurse in Atlanta who was beloved by the black community for her work.
“Black communities needed black health professionals,” she said.
Middleton, who graduated from Pitt’s medical school in 2012, is the first female black chief resident in the UPMC department of orthopedic surgery. She works under attending surgeons, learning skills necessary to become a certified orthopedic surgeon.
A study produced in 2016 by the Association of American Medical Doctors showed that only 8 percent of graduating medical school students were black. Only 4 percent of physicians are African-American, and only 2 percent of all physicians are African-American women, according to a 2007 study.
Today, 23 percent of the School of Medicine’s incoming class are identified as underrepresented minorities.
Even with a medical degree under her belt, Middleton said she has struggled with being seen as a practicing doctor because she is a black woman.
“I actually say thank you [when being called a nurse] because you are mistaken all the time for people that you are not,” she said.
Dr. Lorraine Boakye is also a graduate of Pitt’s medical school and a resident in the department of orthopedic surgery. Throughout her career there have been many times when Boakye has been the only black woman in the room.
“There are things people go through where other people don’t. You just have to know how to survive,” said Boakye.
Dr. Ellen Mitchell said she has seen people Google doctors’ credentials because their names “sound black.” As a pediatric opthamologist at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Pitt, she feels fortunate this does not happen her.
“My name is Ellen Mitchell, so most people don’t even know I am black. For that, I don’t have to credit myself before I even walk in the patient’s room,” Mitchell said.
But she has still faced discrimination. She can clearly recount walking into a patient’s room and the child thinking that she was part of the food staff. Even after she told the child that she was going to be their doctor, the child continued to ask for their food while the parents neglected to correct them.
Middleton also still struggles with not being recognized as a doctor when she walks into the room. When another resident attempted to give her advice by saying she should just wear her white coat all the time, Middleton responded, “Or maybe I should just not be black today.”
She added that she didn’t receive a lot of support from people when she first decided what she wanted to do in life. She said she has relied on other women during her time as a doctor.
“Having the support of other females in medicine is very important,” she said.
Middleton said she has also encountered challenges from her peers — an attending surgeon labeled her as “aggressive” after she spoke up about being discriminated against in the workplace. This reminded her of the “angry black woman” stereotype.
“It must be so nice to just be a resident, to just learn medicine and to just learn how to operate,” she said.
Despite the challenges she often faces in being taken seriously as a professional, Middleton has remained encouraged because of her strong relationships with other black staff members.
“There are a lot of people that supported me and are the reason [black doctors] are here today,” she said. “From patients in the hallway to those who work in dietary, even the random black person on the street seeing you come from work in scrubs, they were all part of this.”
Pitt’s medical school has an Office of Diversity Programs that tries to recruit and retain diverse students. They focus on creating relationships with on-campus organizations such as the Latino Medical Student Association and host eight-week research-based summer programs for undergrads and high school students that introduce students from all backgrounds to medicine and the health sciences.
Dr. Chenits Pettigrew, assistant dean for Student Affairs and the director of diversity programs, said it competes with 138 different schools to recruit underrepresented potential medical students.
”We are pulling from a very small pool,” said Pettigrew. “We try to make sure that we are there for our students.”
Middleton said she and other black female doctors in Pitt’s School of Medicine make an effort to mentor medical students from underrepresented communities. They remain involved in organizations that help minorities and interact with other minority students in other health-science-related schools such as pharmacy and public health.
“In order to be it, you have to see it,” Middleton said.