Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D. and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

First black female transplant surgeon details kidney transplant inequity

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Velma P. Scantlebury, M.D., the nation’s first black female transplant surgeon, told an audience of more than 220 at Virginia Commonwealth University that blacks have a more difficult time getting on kidney transplant lists and have less access than whites to lifesaving kidney transplants.

Scantlebury’s lecture, “Health Equity in Kidney Transplantation: Experiences from a Surgeon’s Perspective,” was held last week at the University Student Commons Theater. Her lecture and a related roundtable discussion were hosted by the Black Education Association at VCU.

“The BEA was honored to host Dr. Velma Scantlebury, whose pioneering work and notable accomplishments are recognized and celebrated especially during Black History Month,” said Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., Black Education Association president and professor of psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “During her visit, Dr. Scantlebury increased our awareness of the importance of organ donation while inspiring VCU and the local community that barriers can be overcome with dedication and hard work.” 

In her lecture, Scantlebury said black patients have lower rates of access to transplantation referrals from dialysis units and have longer times to complete the necessary workup for wait-listing compared to whites. Minority patients also have lower rates of transplants and have fewer patients listed for transplant preemptively compared to white patients, even though they are more likely to have end-stage renal disease, an important criterion for getting on kidney transplant waiting lists.

She said transplant patients have higher survival rates than patients on dialysis, live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.

While there is a great demand for kidneys, the supply is decreasing, and Scantlebury stressed that it is important to educate minorities to become living donors.

Scantlebury also recounted her own path to becoming a transplant surgeon in 1989. As a black inner-city immigrant born to a family of modest means, she faced a number of challenges to rise in a profession that was not populated with people with her background. When an audience member asked what the most important factor was for minorities in becoming a surgeon, she responded, “Exposure — I didn’t know I wanted to be a surgeon until I met one.”

Audience members were encouraged by Scantlebury’s personal story of overcoming the odds.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a surgeon until I met one.

“Dr. Velma Scantlebury’s presentation was inspiring in that it allowed the audience to know her personal journey,” said Ernestine Wilson, retired educator in the Chesterfield County Public School System. “Through the valuable information shared, those present were able to see the avenues to take when seeking to improve the quality of one’s life through kidney transplantation. The opportunity to ask and have answered questions related to real-life experiences was a plus. Special thanks to the Black Education Association for offering this opportunity to the Greater Richmond community.”

The Black Education Association roundtable discussion “Current Issues in Organ Transplantation” focused on a similar theme. It was moderated by Wally Smith, M.D., Florence Neal Cooper Smith Professor of Sickle Cell Disease, VCU School of Medicine.

In addition to Scantlebury, the panelists were Gaurav Gupta, M.D., program director of transplant nephrology fellowship at VCU, and David Klassen, M.D., chief medical officer at the United Network for Organ Sharing.

More than 60 students, doctors, nurses and faculty members turned out for a spirited discussion at the Molecular Medicine Research Building on the MCV Campus.

Gupta said access to transplantation was an effective way to prevent kidney disease. And the waiting time for getting transplants was very important.

“Waiting time on dialysis is the strongest modifiable risk factor for kidney transplant outcomes,” Gupta said.

Scantlebury agreed that there were disparities in the process of referring patients on dialysis to transplant. She argued that the time on dialysis impacted survival after transplant.

Klassen agreed that access to transplantation was a problem.

“African-Americans have a difficult time in getting on the transplant list,” Klassen said.

The day’s events were co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the President for Health Sciences, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, the VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center, the United Network for Organ Sharing, the Woman’s Network at VCU and the American Society for Public Administration – Central Virginia Chapter.


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