Black History Month: Inspired by Black leaders and family members, Campbell looks to a career in medicine

Kristen Campbell
Kristen Campbell is pursuing a master's in public health at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio

Patricia E. Bath, MD, may not be a household name, but to Kristen Campbell she’s an inspiring hero.

Campbell, who has worn glasses most of her life, is pursuing a master’s of public health at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio, and said she’s always admired the ground-breaking work Bath did for blind and visually impaired people.

Bath, who died at the age of 77 in 2019, was an ophthalmologist and laser scientist known for inventing a laser treatment for cataracts called laserphaco. Campbell sees Bath as an example of how Black women have so often overcome the odds stacked against them to make incredible achievements.

While inventing new medical devices and techniques, Bath was also making history by breaking down barriers as the first woman ophthalmologist to be appointed to the faculty of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States.

Campbell said she is inspired, not only by the legacy of Black women doctors like Bath who have been medical pioneers, but also her own mother, who is a family physician.

Following in the footsteps of her mother and other Black physicians in her life, Campbell plans to go onto medical school after finishing up her master’s in public health. Campbell believes her MPH will help her as a doctor to have more compassion and understanding for her patients, especially for communities of color.

“I believe every medical professional should have a public health background, just so they can understand that health is more than treating symptoms,” she said. “It’s really about preventing symptoms from even happening in the first place.”

Campbell said knowing that Black people, and Black women in particular, are underrepresented in the world of medicine pushes her to become the kind of doctor that she believes Black women everywhere need. It was in one of her undergraduate classes taught by a Black female professor that Campbell said she fully understood for the first time not only the disparities faced by people of color in healthcare, but also that she had the power to fight back against those problems.

Campbell said she’d like to see healthcare professionals adopt more cultural humility.

“It’s not just something that you learn and study, but actually integrating it into your life,” Campbell said. “You try to understand people every day, try to be empathetic, compassionate, not because you are told to, but because it’s a journey that you’ve decided to take.

As for Campbell’s particular path in the world of medicine, she said she’s not sure yet what area she would like to focus on in medical school and beyond, but said she is passionate about understanding and improving the rates of maternal mortality, especially for Black women.

Campbell is drawn to changing the future of obstetrics and gynecology, as she finds inspiration from the Black women who unwillingly suffered at the expense of advancements in the field, a tainted moment of modern-medical history. A cure for post-birth complications was discovered by James Sims (1813-1883), who performed painful surgeries on a group of enslaved Black women, without their consent and without anesthesia. Campbell said modern historians and health educators have worked hard to bring attention to the sacrifice of these women, and elevate their story, referring to them as the 'Mothers of Gynecology.’

Campbell is on track to graduate with her MPH in the spring of 2024, and continues the process of vetting medical schools to continue her education.

“My goal with entering medicine is to use my public health background to encourage healthy behaviors,” Campbell said, “but also to encourage my colleagues to really think about how they treat patients.”

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