For Dr. Angel M. Schaffer, both Minority Health Awareness Month, which occurs during April, and Black Maternal Health Week, which takes place from April 11-17, carry very special meanings.
A successful family practice physician at Kaiser Permanente South Bay, Dr. Schaffer still vividly recalls a childhood memory that helped shape her future and strong belief in the importance of diversity and equity in health care.
“When I showed an interest in health care as a child, my mom encouraged me to follow that dream all the way to becoming a doctor. She worked hard to help me succeed and attend college,” recalled Dr. Schaffer, who’s African American.
“While I was an undergrad, my mom gave birth to my baby sister but had trouble breathing a few days later,” she continued. “My mom’s heart was damaged, and she was diagnosed with post-partum cardiomyopathy. She was evaluated for a heart transplant, which was denied by a committee – comprised exclusively of white, male doctors – who assumed her home life was too unstable.”
With her mom’s frail health, Dr. Schaffer decided the right thing to do was to return home to care for her ailing mom. It was during that time that her mom made a wish that would help shape Dr. Schaffer’s future.
“She told me, ‘It’s time for you to become a doctor to help right the wrong,’ having learned firsthand about bias in health care, especially the lack of knowledge and empathy that was prevalent at that time, and to some extent, continues to exist in many areas today,” she said.
Dr. Schaffer said her mom talked to her a lot about the importance of good bedside manners, compassion and how she should show up for others. Although she died a few months after Dr. Schaffer started medical school, she noted her mom was so proud of her accomplishment.
“She hugged me in her last moments, saying, ‘We did it!’ Dr. Schaffer recalled, smiling.
As a teen mom and a high school drop-out with mental health challenges from domestic violence, Dr. Schaffer’s mom faced many challenges and was least expected to succeed. Yet, her dream lives on, Dr. Schaffer insisted.
“I have served my community as a doctor for 20-plus years, fighting for health care equality and advocating for minority communities,” Dr. Schaffer said, noting both her daughters also want to become physicians to serve their communities.
“I’m so proud that Kaiser Permanente has programs like the Hippocrates Circle, which gets students from diverse communities interested in health care at an early age, and that equity, inclusion, and diversity are core tenets of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena,” Dr. Schaffer said.
“It gives me hope that health care of the future will be even more inclusive of all voices, in ways my mom never got to experience.”