When 18-year-old Margaret Larkins graduated from McKeesport High School and headed off to the University of Pittsburgh, it was the a result of mastering an extremely difficult advanced science class that had landed her admission into the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. She had never been that far out of McKeesport.
Literally a real life “coal miner’s’ daughter,” she had always been told by her parents that she could be whatever she set out to be, and she mastered the art of believing them. With four siblings, finances were at a premium for her family; and winning this scholarship was the timely ticket that would make her the first in the family to receive a college education. “I recall the day my mother came to the University of Pittsburgh financial aid officer to ask him when she could get the $50 due to us so that we could purchase my books,” said Margaret. How ironic it was that same finance officer at that time was 25-year-old Chenits Pettigrew, who would later become Margaret’s husband, held various progressive positions within the university.
“I had no thought of being married, becoming a doctor, or even leaving McKeesport,” said Margaret. “I just knew the university was recruiting African-American women into the nursing program and 22 of us took a challenging science class. Passing the class, would show we could handle the nursing program. Of the 22 who took it, 15 passed, of the 15 who entered the nursing program, only two of us made it through.” Eighteen-year old Margaret was one of them.
Thus began the circuitous road from nursing school, to marriage, to graduate school, and at the age of 34, entering the United States Navy, and on to medical school. Armed with her degree in medicine, this road took her back to the Navy to serve her country for three- and-half years before returning to Pittsburgh in early 2002.
Over the past eight years as the only African-American female generalist in obstetrics and gynecology in this region—found it necessary to leave again. This young woman, who had never been outside McKeesport, along with husband Chentis, who is currently dean of Student Affairs and director of Diversity Programs for the Pitt Medical School, now traveled every year from 2003 to 2009 to Ghana and Swaziland, as part of Project Africa: Medical and Humanitarian Missions.
In just over a month’s time, she will be leaving her practice of Greater Pittsburgh Obstetrics and Gynecology, where she is a partner, as well as her position as assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of Global Health.
Of her marriage to Chenits, and their relationship she says the description Cicely Tyson gives in the film, “Medea’s Family Reunion” fits. “When I hear his heart beat and listen for mine, I hear one beat—in sync one with the other,” she continues, “What we have has worked because we’ve continued to have a ‘courtship’ each and every day.”
And from this bond, and ongoing courtship, has come a professional relationship that has spanned the past 32 years.
The two brought their collective professional skills, commitment, passion together for the first time. Her husband was a vice president of enrollment management and student services in Tuskegee, Ala. and she was the director of student health services. When local hospital John A. Andrew could no longer keep its doors open, they worked to develop an EMS service in Macon County, Ala., that would help facilitate transportation of students to Auburn Hospital which was 28 miles away. Her husband says, “We’ve been blessed to share a passion for and belief in the importance of creating equitable health care options for all people, no matter what their economic status. Having her work with our students, providing the direction for them necessary to serve the underserved has been very meaningful demonstration of that partnership.”
Returning to Pittsburgh in the early part of 2002 and joining the team of Turner, Kisner and Thompson Gynecologists, the couple was responding to promises they made years ago to those who supported their decision to leave Pittsburgh to do graduate work—the promise was to spend time in professional development and return to the city that housed both of their birthplaces. “Donald Henderson, former provost of the University of Pittsburgh, was a strong supporter of our efforts,” said Pettigrew. “He was very instrumental in making it financially feasible for us to leave our jobs, move to the West Coast, and work on graduate degrees.”
It is at this time, a husband and two children later, that Margaret felt compelled to return to medical school. “The more I worked as a nurse, the more I knew I needed to make a greater impact on women of color, as well as young doctors coming into the profession. When I mentioned this desire to my husband—he didn’t take a second breath before saying, well we better do it now.
“Because I knew I could not create the kind of financial deficit on my children, which entering medical school would do, I sought a career with the United States Navy, got an officer’s commission and consequently had my medical school paid for. Even with the drawback of owing the Navy four years of my life, we knew in the long run it would be better for me individually and better for us as a family professionally.” said Margaret.
The advancement of their careers throughout the years make the Pettigrews, no stranger to having the family separated by distance and time; but at least, says Chenits, “we always knew the separations were a ‘means to an end that what we were doing would lead us back to ‘us’ and back to our work.”
She leaves her work here in Pittsburgh to accept a comparable post at the prestigious Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Thus the Pettigrews will experience yet another phase in their 32-year marriage. Their professional projects will become a greater challenge to achieve, and their personal life will take a significant logistical shift.
Larkins-Pettigrew says of this difficult decision. “Regrettably my tenure here just did not allow me to balance a clinical educator’s career with a community centered patient practice in this current environment; both of which always remained high priorities.” She leaves the work and the university but not her home. As a health care professional, she plans to maintain the academic collaborations, volunteer commitments so necessary in the continued enhancement of healthcare in the lives of Pittsburghers.