As the United States’ first female African-American transplant surgeon, Velma Scantlebury wants to see more people of color in the operating room — be it holding a scalpel, or on the table as an organ donor. As a spokesperson for the Linkages to Life initiative, she aims to bolster the number of African-Americans who become organ donors; her tandem mission is increasing the number of African-American transplant surgeons.

Velma Scantlebury is making history … restoring trust between the African-American and medical communities. Scantlebury traces this distrust to the Tuskegee experiments, which began in the 1930s in Macon County, Alabama. The U.S. Public Health Service enrolled 399 impoverished men with syphilis in the study, offering free medical exams and free meals. For 40 years, the men were monitored, but never told they had syphilis, and never treated for the disease, even after penicillin was discovered as a cure in 1947.

After training at Columbia Medical School and teaching for 14 years at University of Pittsburgh, Scantlebury moved to Alabama in 2002; for six years, she served as a surgery professor at University of Southern Alabama while she worked with black church communities in Alabama to restore this still-broken trust towards the medical field, reassuring African-Americans that there are legal and ethical measures now in place to protect patients. Most of Dr. Scantlebury’s patients Alabama were under-insured, if they have insurance at all. Many of her minority patients die because they can’t afford the medications to keep their organs working properly. To this end, Velma worked not only as a capable surgeon, but also collaborates with social workers to get funding for her patients when Medicare is unaffordable.

In 2008, Scantlebury transplanted to Delaware’s Christiana Care Health System where she helps direct the kidney transplant program. She continues her work with Linkages to Life to increase the number of African-American organ donors.

What’s next for Velma?

Dr. Scantlebury is conducting research to increase the longevity of the transplant patient. On average, a kidney transplant recipient will live 10 to 15 years if they received the organ from a live donor, and eight years if the kidney was received from a cadaver.

In her own words …

“My passion is to educate the African-American community and to empower dialysis patients with the knowledge and understanding that they too can have a better life through the gift of transplantation,” said Scantlebury in a 2006 interview with Ebony magazine.

A little-known fact …

The United States has a shortage of organ donors. Currently, more than 101,000 people are waiting for transplant surgeries. Though African-Americans are 13 percent of the population, and account for 12 percent of donor demographics, they are disproportionately in need of transplants; African-Americans account for 23 percent of the kidney waiting list.

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