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Staying focused to overcome prejudice and achieve career goals

As part of Global Diversity Awareness Month, Dr. Michelle Whitehurst-Cook shares her unique perspectives.

Dr. Michelle Whitehurst-Cook in classroom

As part of Global Diversity Awareness Month, we’re amplifying the voices of VCU Health team members with diverse perspectives and experiences who are helping others in their communities. Dr. Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, a primary care physician at VCU Health, was the only Black woman in her residency. Here, she describes her life experiences.

Why did you choose to become a primary care physician?

My next-door neighbor growing up was a family doctor. He was amazing and so well thought of in our community. He always listened and took care of all my family and all our problems. I wanted to be just like him.

Did you face any challenges or misconceptions on your journey to get where you are?

Of course. Integration of public schools happened junior year of high school. Many white students switched to private schools. One of those students ended up being my lab partner at the College of William & Mary. There were lots of misconceptions on both sides that took a lot of discussions to resolve.

In college, I had to prove that my SAT scores and high school grades were top notch. Most people thought I was there because I was Black, but I was super lucky to have four of the sweetest roommates.

Medical school was a Black and a female issue, but with my eyes on a goal I just kept looking straight ahead to reach it. I thought clinical practice would be better, but I remember challenging moments like when a partner’s wife felt she couldn’t put her reputation with her white friends on the line by inviting my son to the neighborhood pool.

I also had to walk out of a few hospital staff meetings in the late 1980s for racist remarks — that happened in residency as well. I could go on, but I won’t. While the support of fellow residents and partners was strong, it became a daily battle for respect. As one ages though, the skin actually thickens. But it is great to see how the fight now is building allies to deconstruct racial structuralism and address racial and implicit bias directly.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Working with the students, watching them grow and succeed at such high levels.

Why do you think it's important for there to be diversity in health care?

Research shows health outcomes are much improved when health care providers look and talk like their patients.

Do you have any advice for patients who may be struggling with the tragedies happening in the world right now, and/or discrimination or injustices they may face each day in their own lives?

Find a support group of like-minded friends and talk frequently, share your stories, vote, and work with groups that have social justice goals as their mission and who work for systemic change. There is power in numbers.

In what ways do you support your community?

I work with my church to address social justice issues. I provide free care for the homeless and work to provide better education for our Richmond public school students and opportunities outside of school to broaden their horizons. I also participate with RAM in rural Virginia, which provides health care and screening for rural and underserved areas.