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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 21-22

African-American surgeons: A legacy of excellence

Surgical Health Collective, Atlanta, GA, USA

Date of Web Publication15-Apr-2019

Correspondence Address:
Mark Walker
Surgical Health Collective, 777, Cleveland Avenue, #305, Atlanta, GA 30315
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/njct.njct_4_19

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How to cite this article:
Walker M. African-American surgeons: A legacy of excellence. Niger J Cardiovasc Thorac Surg 2018;3:21-2

How to cite this URL:
Walker M. African-American surgeons: A legacy of excellence. Niger J Cardiovasc Thorac Surg [serial online] 2018 [cited 2019 Sep 18];3:21-2. Available from: http://www.nigjourcvtsurg.org/text.asp?2018/3/2/21/256254

In this issue of the Nigerian Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, another installment of the history of African-American surgeons in the United States is presented. These men and women were pioneers blazing a trail of persistence, dedication, compassion, and excellence in spite of often impossible odds. The nation as a whole owes them a debt for their sacrifice. It is important to place their lives in perspective. These men and women did not just appear. They were molded and shaped by their ancestors with deep connections to the origin of humankind – Mother Africa. It is critical to remember that enslaved Africans were forbidden to read or write. Communication was severely curtailed, and torture or even death was the consequence when these prohibitions were violated. It is remarkable that a few decades after emancipation, master surgeons like Daniel Hale Williams arrived on the scene to make contributions that dramatically changed surgical thinking. Many know that Dr. Williams performed the first operation opening the pericardium and evaluating the heart because of penetrating chest trauma. Few know that he also performed one of the first operations to salvage a damaged spleen.[1] His contributions extended far beyond the operating room. He developed Provident Hospital in Chicago, arranging the funding, developing the plans, and overseeing implementation. He also helped to start the nursing program at the hospital. Because of his leadership skills, he was asked to assist in the implementation of quality improvement policies at Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C. His work at Howard helped establish a solid foundation that would be expanded by others. Dr. Charles Drew – Professor and Chair of Surgery at Howard University – was one such leader. Dr. Drew was probably best known for his pioneering work establishing a plasma program for wounded soldiers in England during the Second World War. He was known for his keen insight and unfailing dedication. His career in surgery is characterized by the following aphorism: excellence of performance will overcome artificial barriers created by man.[2] He died in 1950 but left the students and staff with the principles that would guide them for many years to come. One such student was Dr. Lasalle D. Leffall. He would complete his surgical training at Howard and then pursue advanced training in surgical oncology at the world-acclaimed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He returned to Howard and rose to become Professor and Chair of Surgery. Dr. Leffall has trained one of the largest cohorts of African-American Surgeons in the United States. He became the Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery and was the first African-American president of the American College of Surgeons (serving from 1995 to 1996). Born in the small town of Quincy, Florida, he attended Florida A and M University graduating with high honors. A master teacher and inspiring lecturer, he is known to exhort residents and staff to manifest the highest standard for a surgeon: equanimity under duress. He met each challenge with a sense of duty and resolve that made all around him believe that each problem no matter how complex could be solved. To rise from a small town in the Jim Crow South with a plethora of obstacles placed in ones' path and then to reach the pinnacle of leadership in American Surgery is truly remarkable. This is just one story of courage and triumph. There are so many more enumerated in this issue. African-American surgeons needed to bring more than just what was required to the table. They had to bring excellence plus certain intangibles that prevented them from accepting the word no. They had to ignore all of the signs shouting – no blacks allowed.

These master surgeons were also philosophers and mentors. Their understanding of life was deep and rich. This understanding is reflected in the following anecdote. Cannonball Adderley was a master jazz saxophonist during the 1950s and 1960s. He attended Florida A and M University and was a friend and classmate of Dr. Leffall. Once Dr. Leffall was listening to music with Cannonball, he asked him about a particular note. Cannonball stated that the note in question was a grace note – something extra that provides just the right touch.[3] This something extra is what each physician brings to the care of his or her patient. An encouraging smile, a knowing touch, a kind word or gesture that can provide just the support that the patient requires for healing to continue. These notes of grace represent the musical poetry of healing. They make the case that surgery is more than cutting and sewing. That in the end, it is all about the connections that we have with each other no matter the crisis or challenge. This is the enduring lesson of African-American surgeons and the legacy of excellence.

  References Top

Organ CA, Kosiba M. A century of black surgeons. In: The Life of Daniel Hale Williams. Norman, Oklahoma: Transcript Press; 1987. p. 311-34.  Back to cited text no. 1
Organ CA, Kosiba M. A century of black surgeons. In: The Life of Charles R. Drew. Norman, Oklahoma: Transcript Press; 1987. p. 63-102.  Back to cited text no. 2
Leffall LD. Grace notes. In: No Boundaries: A Cancer Surgeons Odyssey. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press; 2005. p. 179-91.  Back to cited text no. 3


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