Fighting for civil rights, enduring the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo, battling cancer and surviving two kidney transplants have not diminished the spirit of the country’s first female African-American orthopedic surgeon, Claudia Lynn Thomas, M.D. In observance of Black History Month, Thomas addressed the University of Florida chapter of the Student National Medical Association Feb. 8 in the George T. Harrell, M.D., Medical Education Building.
Thomas told a group of about 50 students and faculty her life story through anecdotes about standing up for minority patients’ rights and her determination to be treated fairly. Bias is very much alive and can play a role in medicine, she said.
Raised in the borough of Queens in New York City by parents who taught her to read and write even before kindergarten, Thomas attended Vassar College in 1969. While negotiating with the administration to establish an accredited Black studies major, she and fellow African-American students barricaded themselves with boards and nails in the administration building for four days. Threatened with violence and retribution, the group remained steadfast until amnesty was provided and a new program was established by the college’s trustees. Thomas graduated from Vassar with a degree in Black studies.
Thomas touched on the challenges she faced as the first African-American female to graduate from the orthopaedic surgery residency program at Yale University, that being a physician is the most noble profession in the world and that good character is mandatory for physicians.
“It is your place to speak up,” she said.
First-year MBA student Jordan Mullings reacted to the speech by saying, “To learn that your character is shaped in moments of adversity, and in times when it’s easy to submit to the status quo, standing up — having the courage in those times to stand up — is really what defines you and that’s what it takes to really make change over the long term.”
Thomas said afterward that she hopes her talk helped at least one student with a decision he or she is trying to make.
“That’s just the way the world has worked for me,” she said. “You need to be in touch with the spiritual things that can help guide you into the direction you want to go. No one’s getting by by themselves.”