Surgical rock star…Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White

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Dr. Velma Scantlebury-White, the nation’s first African American female transplant surgeon and associate director of the Kidney Transplant Program in Delaware at Christiana Care Health System, has performed more than 800 transplants in children and adults. Scantlebury-White was a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine from 1988 to 2002. Her research interests include outcomes of organ donations and transplantations in African-Americans, and she was recently honored with the National Kidney Foundation’s Gift of Life Award for her work in transplantation among minorities.

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DR. VELMA SCANTLEBURY-WHITE

Her hands, once deemed “too small for a surgeon,” have cut and stitched their way through more than 200 living donor kidney transplants, four times as many cadaveric donor transplants, and many other complicated organ transplants.

“Small hands can be better than big hands in surgery, especially when you’re working on kids.”

Scantlebury-White found a woman surgeon to emulate, a true mentor in Dr. Barbara Barlow, then director of pediatric surgery: “She was very encouraging. She led me, taught me, gave me advice, groomed me, and told me I needed to do research, and then she made the opportunity for me to spend time in transplantation surgery under Dr. Mark Hardy.”

Scantlebury-White spent six months in the lab with Hardy, assisting him in his research on renal flow experiments of kidney transplantation in animal models. And though at the time she viewed this research primarily as a prerequisite for a career in pediatric surgery, it would prove to be even more valuable. Because she had research and clinical experience, Dr. Thomas E. Starzl interviewed and promptly admitted her for training. Her intense and challenging two-year fellowship in transplantation, from 1986 to 1988, set her on the path of her life’s work.

Outside the OR, the biggest challenge, she says, is maintaining longevity. The average survival time for a kidney transplant is 10 to 15 years for a living donor kidney transplant and eight years for a transplant from a cadaver organ. “We’re good at controlling acute rejection early on, but we still don’t have a good handle on controlling the chronic destruction that occurs over time.”

Another challenge is finding funds to pay for essential post-transplant drugs. Medicare covers 80 percent of the cost of medications for the first three years after transplantation. Beyond that, as Scantlebury-White bluntly puts it: “You’re on your own, honey! Medicare expects people to get a job and go back to work, but not everybody is able to do that.”

Many of her patients are either uninsured or underinsured. With Medicare co-pays sometimes running as high as $500 to $800 a month, family budgets are strained. Consequently, patients stretch their medications to make them last, kidneys fail, and they return to dialysis. “It’s a medical catch-22,” Scantlebury-White concedes. She and a social worker do their best to squeeze the government and the pharmaceutical companies to try to help her patients remain compliant.

“My passion,” she said in a recent profile in Ebony magazine, “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.”

A fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Scantlebury-White is a member of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and the American Society of Minority Health and Transplant Professionals, among other organizations. She is the co-author of more than 85 peer-reviewed papers and 10 monographs and book chapters. She sits on numerous boards and committees, including Donate Life America, the National Minority Organ and Tissue Transplant Education Program, and the United Network for Organ Sharing.

She also takes every opportunity to speak to students and their parents, urging young people not to “let the negative perceptions of others sink into you to become your own perception of who you are” and urging parents to “encourage your young ones, whatever their dreams and aspirations.”

Though wanting at this point in her career to slow down some and spend a bit more quality time with her family, she remains passionately committed to her work. “I’ve always said that I would not retire until there are at least 10 other African-American women in transplantation.” Currently there is one other African-American female transplant surgeon (in Los Angeles). With nine more to go, Scantlebury-White will have her hands full for a while.

Studies have shown that Black patients with end-stage renal disease don’t have the same access to kidney transplants as Whites. She made eliminating that disparity a goal during her 16 years at Pitt, and she will continue that work wherever her journey takes her. Whatever their race, too few patients know enough about their transplant options, Scantlebury-White said. “Patients are not really aware of what they’re entitled to in terms of referral for transplants—access to health care in general, really—and that’s always been a passion of mine,” she said.

She is married to Dr. Harvey White, director of the Center for Healthy Communities at USA. The couple has two daughters.

(Compiled by Franki L. Williams for the New Pittsburgh Courier.)

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