Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston

One day I was in the living room with my mother. I grew up in the projects, which is what used to be called low-income housing for poor people. And we only had three small rooms, and that day she fainted in the living room. And I had no idea what was wrong. It was very frightening to me, and back then we didn’t have 911 and so I didn’t really know what to do. But the long and short of this is that she had cancer of the cervix. We were poor, we were uninsured, she was not getting health care. And from that point on, I knew that I wanted to do something to change that situation. At that time there were not many women in medicine. There certainly weren’t many African Americans. So I had no role models, and I had no encouragement to go into medicine. My counselors all said, oh, no, don’t worry about that. You’ll never get admitted as a woman. You’ll never get admitted as an African American, or as an African American woman, and besides, you’re too poor to go. You know, you’ll never have the money. But the motivation—I knew I really wanted to do this. And I had wonderful mentors that said, don’t let your dreams go. And I guess in all fairness, back then, it did seem like an impossible dream at the time. So that these issues were very clear early on to me, and they have remained prominent in my career. And I have spent a career trying to change this, and trying to get health care to disadvantaged, underserved people throughout the nation. I spent some time at the National Institutes of Health. And one of the projects that I did while I was there was working with sickle cell disease, especially looking at the problem that babies with sickle cell disease die very suddenly—especially they’re at risk in the first three years of life. I led a study where we looked at can’t we prevent this? If by giving babies penicillin prophylactically, before they get the fever, before they get the infection—can’t we save some lives? This study was so successful we stopped it midway—because the results were so compelling. The babies that got the penicillin prophylactically definitely did not have the infections, and it was a study that saved lives. And it is saving lives now. Worldwide. You know, because sickle cell disease is a worldwide problem. I always tell students that your heroes and your sheroes are not just in the history books, they’re not just on TV, but they’re all around you. And to look for them, and to ask them to mentor you. Don’t just passively and say, oh, I wish I could have that person, ask them. And I always remind them, you know, that they’ll always say yes. Because we’re always so flattered, and we say, oh, yes. I would be glad to be your mentor.