The Mercury News
By Tracy Seipel

Stanford surgeon Dr. Leah Backhus is an esteemed member of a relatively tiny club in U.S. medicine she sometimes refers to as “two-fers:” female African-American doctors.

They represent about 2 percent of the nation’s 877,616 active physicians but are among a growing trend in the country:  A report last year from the Association of American Medical Colleges indicated that by 2013, black women 49 and younger made up a greater percentage of the U.S. physician workforce than black men in the same age group .

The reasons behind that are not entirely clear, said the association’s Laura Castillo-Page, though data shows women have been outpacing men in college enrollment for decades, especially among blacks and Hispanics.

But, for many women, aspiring to become a doctor can be daunting in a profession still dominated by white men.

As they honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday in celebration of his birthday, Backhus and two other Bay Area African-American doctors who completed that journey recalled key factors they believe helped them reach their goal.

From a young age, they all knew they wanted to be doctors; they had the unswerving support of their parents, including a single mother; they found mentors — of all colors — who helped them along the way.

And even at junctures when they encountered discrimination, all three sought to ignore the insults and stay focused.

“I have benefited in a major way from people who don’t look like me,” said Backhus, 44, who is also chief of thoracic surgery at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. “But I have also seen a flood of relief when I have reached out to young surgeons in training who are infinitely grateful to have someone who does look like them.”

She was in the sixth grade and living in Los Angeles when the notion of becoming a neurosurgeon captured her imagination.

“It seemed like the frontier of medicine to my 11-year-old self. I would be a medical pioneer!” she recounted.

Backhus’ grandmother had been a registered nurse at Bellevue Hospital in New York, the nation’s oldest public hospital. Though she had wanted to become a doctor, she saw no opportunity for herself in that era.

Her granddaughter would have to be the first in the family, and after graduating from Stanford University, Backhus was accepted at the school of medicine at the University of Southern California.

To her dismay during her first year, however, the chairman of the neurosurgery department — a white doctor — told her that without an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school, neurosurgery would be “incredibly difficult.”

He emphasized the grueling nature of the training, the amount of trauma surgery involved, and the long hours. Stunned by the lack of encouragement to pursue her dream, Backhus pivoted, explored general surgery, and eventually decided to specialize in thoracic surgery, which focuses on diseases in the chest.

Her colleagues in that department were “overwhelmingly encouraging,” she recalled.

But the wife and mother of two has never forgotten the disappointing interview with the department head.

“I know it happens, and it’s unfortunate,” said Backhus.

Backhus points to a recent report from the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute and the Artemis Medical Society, of which she is a co-founder, that included in-depth interviews with 20 female physicians of color from California and around the U.S.

Among other revelations, 40 percent of the interviewees — most of them African-American — said they recalled a high school or college counselor attempting to discourage them from pursuing a medical career, while over half had questioned their prospects of succeeding as a physician because they had never met a doctor who shared their racial identity.

Dr. Pam Simms-Mackey, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, was luckier than most. She was raised by a mother with a background in early childhood education, and a father who was a urologist.

“I always say, ‘It’s easier to dream it if you can see it,’ ” said Simms-Mackey, 49, who also is married with two children.

“I had a father talk about discrimination,” she recalled of his years as the only black student in his class at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. The family’s move to Oakland in the early 1970s also came at a time when some area hospitals refused him admitting privileges.

By middle school, however, Simms-Mackey had decided to become a pediatrician.

“I always wanted to help people and make a difference, and I love kids,” she said, adding how important it is for her patients, 85 percent of whom are African-American, to have a physician who looks like them.

“I think they’re really pleased to see me,” she added. “They kind of light up.”

It doesn’t hurt that since 2012, many of her young patients have been watching the animated children’s television series, “Doc McStuffins.”

Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, an African-American youngster, has decided she wants to become a doctor like her mother, a pediatrician. In the Disney Channel show, which has been renewed for a fifth season, the little girl practices her dream by fixing toys and dolls.

“They love it,” said Simms-Mackey, who hands out stickers of characters featured in that series, among others, to her young patients. “It’s a doctor who looks like their doctor, and who looks like them.”

In the heart of San Jose, Dr. Shani Muhammad applauds efforts to increase the number of female African-American doctors she doesn’t see represented in many hospitals and urgent care centers where she has worked.

“In most of our cases, you are very likely to be one of — if not the only — female of color working in your department, and sometimes in your hospital,” said the medical director of the Valley Health Center Downtown, where she treats mostly low-income patients suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

It was actually an Asian-American female doctor she connected with as a teen growing up in Los Angeles who inspired her path to medical school and a career devoted to primary care.

“I felt like I had a doctor who understood me and who I could talk to about things,” said the 39-year-old wife and mother of two, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergrad, followed by medical school and residency at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  “And I thought, ‘That’s something I would want to do for other people.’ ”

Like Backhus, Simms-Mackay also attended Stanford University, but on a basketball scholarship. So whatever free time she had left needed to be spent on doing well in her pre-med classes.

The pediatrician said the guidance she received from an African-American female counselor at Stanford was crucial in helping her do that so she could make the leap to medical school at UCLA.

In her other role as director of the hospital’s graduate medical education and residency program, Simms-Mackey is able to help open doors for medical residents of color, male and female.

“I always say I’m trying to train pediatricians who reflect our world today,” she said.