Interview, February 2017
I would like to start by asking you about your memories of childhood. How do you think the structure and environment of your home influenced your choices during your academic career?
Lynette Charity (LC): Well, that’s a good question. As I said before, I was born in the United States, during the years of segregation, between 1950 and 1960. It was a difficult time, hard to find minority role models, and I had no one to admire.
The first big marker in my memory, which shaped me very deeply, was the death of my sister when I was still a child. It made me look at life in a different way, wanting to be someone better.
When you don’t find inspiration in someone close, you have to go looking elsewhere. One of my inspirations was just a television actor, who played a doctor in the television series Ben Casey. Just the act of watching him, week after week, earning the respect of his colleagues and his patients, made me realize that I wanted that for myself. And that I had to pursue that feeling the best that I could.
Q: As you said in your speech at the In4Med Conference, your quest to become a doctor wasn’t always easy. Can you explain to us, in broad terms, to what extent?
LC: Segregation was in effect at the time, I lived in a dysfunctional family, and my sister died. It was very difficult when I decided to be a doctor. I didn’t know exactly what it meant at the time, but I wanted people to look at me and see, not a black woman, but someone who could get the job done, be very successful and respected. Just like the doctor in the television series. That ambition made me use my intelligence, which I knew I had, to get from point A to point B. I did everything that I could do to expand my intelligence. And as soon as the schools were integrated, the first choice that I made was to go to a white school.
Q: What is your biggest motivation to continue defending your beliefs and ideals in your life?
LC: I think, after making my life a stage for motivating others for so many years, and the simple fact of being alive for so many years, I can tell you that staying true to ourselves is very important. For a long time, I felt that I was forcing myself to be someone that I wasn’t. All of us, because it is part of human nature, especially women, have a tendency to simulate, to try to be like someone else. The best thing we can do is to be ourselves.
I am a black woman, energetic, alive, intelligent, and I’m very proud of it. Take me as I am. If you don’t like it, you can look somewhere else.
Q: Do you think it would have been useful to have crossed paths with a Lynette Charity in your adolescence and worked with her?
LC: We all need role models. If that had happened to me, it might have been better. Everything I got in life, I did for myself. I didn’t have anyone to help me. My parents didn’t have a higher education. I read a lot and watched a lot of television. And I had enormous ambition and motivation to complete my mission, which was to be a doctor.
Q: Why anesthesiology?
LC: There are many specialties to choose from. And nothing seemed to suit me during the service rotations in the hospital. Until I came to anesthesiology and, for some reason, everything that I did, or was told to do, seemed so natural, so simple. I felt, for the first time, my real calling. And so I talk a lot about calling. It’s among the best gifts we can have, to truly sense our calling, not that which seems good or is imposed upon us. And I’ve been doing it for over 40 years.
Q: What do you consider to be the most fascinating part in your area of expertise?
The technology, the advances that have occurred. Before, there wasn’t even any ultrasound, and now, what keeps me alive and alert in this field is learning new things and tinkering with new things with disconcerting regularity. Before it was crude and rude, almost; now is sublime and delicate. We flourish, every day, in a wonderful specialty.
Q: What do you think has been the most relevant, most intelligent question that you’ve asked yourself, the one which created the biggest turnaround on your professional path?
LC: I need to think a bit about that. [Laughs] When I was young, I had to make a fundamental decision. I had to think about whether I wanted to stay in the situation where I found myself, which was, basically, a high school education, in my community, doing the jobs that “blacks” were supposed to do, or leave and fight for what I wanted. And I thought, “This isn’t for me.” I looked at my mother and father, and my family members, and said, “This is not my world. My world is out there waiting for me, not in segregation, but in integration.” And I signed the paper to go to the “white” school. I forged my mother’s signature because, at the time, I didn’t know if she would let me do it. There was too much fear in the houses and on the streets. I remember saying to myself, “I have to do this. There’s no way to get where I want to go in life if I stay here.”
Q: How do you deal with failure?
LC: It’s hard. Life hasn’t always been rosy for me. There were situations in which, even being a doctor, the patients looked at me and saw only the black woman, even asking for a different doctor. It shocks me, because sometimes I forget that obvious part of me, that I am a woman and that I am black. For me, in the hospital, I’m just an anesthesiologist and the rest shouldn’t matter; my credentials should speak for themselves. So I’ve had various ways of dealing with failure. I’ve been depressed. I’ve done psychotherapy. I take refuge in my family, which has in fact been my biggest support. And most important of all, I decided that what people think isn’t important. They’re the ones who are wrong, not me. It’s necessary to differentiate their thought processes from mine. If they don’t want me as a friend, if they don’t want to be associated with me, it’s their problem. I can find other people.
Q: Have you ever felt disdain from your colleagues and peers?
LC: Yes, Yes! I often tell a story, which was very sad for me at the time, and still is, about what happened when I decided to marry my husband. My husband is white; when we met and decided to marry, they told me that I shouldn’t do it because I wasn’t supposed to marry outside of my race, my “type.” When we walked along the street holding hands, we were often looked at as if we had a contagious disease and it was horrible. We were doctors, and one could see that we belonged to a social status that should have said to people, “Everything’s fine!” But no. There were always disdainful people, saying that we shouldn’t have children, because they would have a hard life at school, because they would be the result of an interracial marriage. Well, my kids are perfectly fine, as they’ve always been.
Q: What words of encouragement would you like to pass on to future doctors, taking into account the most difficult challenges that they’ll face?
LC: From what I’ve heard so far, in the questions they asked me during the talk, stress is the main problem. The stress of being a medical student and the stress of being a doctor. The most important thing is knowing what you want. There will inevitably be obstructions and adversities. How do you deal with that? First, never alone; avoid being lone wolves! There will always be someone to help, provided there’s no inhibition in asking for help. This is not a profession in which you can go it alone; you depend, unequivocally, on teamwork and joint effort.
Q: Is this your first time in Portugal?
LC: Yes, it’s my first time in Portugal, and I love it. We landed in Porto and spent a few days there. I did 20,000 steps! It was a challenge, because I forgot that after descending so much, I had to climb back up! But the people are fabulous, and helpful. Even though there was a language barrier, everyone tried to help.
Q: What knowledge do you have about the medical situation in Portugal currently?
LC: I don’t know much, truthfully. I know that they don’t pay for school, that taxes help to ensure that, and that they pay annual tuition. In the U.S., education costs can be fifty to seventy thousand dollars a year. Many students are left, of course, with enormous debts. And we were talking about stress! We had a health system that helped to pay for medical school, but it didn’t work, which is terrible, because the truth is that there’s a shortage of doctors, worldwide, and so there’s no incentive. Everyone would repay that investment when they started to work. The world needs doctors and your system is great for that. Since I came to Coimbra, I haven’t seen anything but enthusiasm and goodwill. No one paid you to organize this conference; you are doing this on your own time, and more than half are women! You can be everything you want!
Q: What generated the desire to write a book?
LC: When I decided to be a speaker, I realized that I always spoke in public without the title of speaker, because as doctors we get up and give speeches. We don’t really speak with the people; we just lecture, with technical terms, without much room for fun. So when I decided to become a professional speaker, I had a lot of training in this area, and one of the things that they repeated in these courses is that it’s always important to have a written basis for what we’re going to assert or share – a book, which could be small, or testimonial. And so I’m writing an autobiography with the hope that through my story, which I consider unique, I can reach many more people. But I must say that the big push to do it came from the people around me. At the end of a talk that I gave in Malaysia, a Chinese lady came up to me and said, “You should write a book.” And I said, “Oh, okay. I’ll write a book!” [Laughs]
Q: How do you see yourself in twenty years?
LC: In twenty years, I’ll be eighty-five. But that’s not important, because now that I’ve found this new calling – this ability to be able to inspire medical students, to share my experiences with so many people, to offer myself, just to listen to the dilemmas that they face – I feel like I could do it forever. There, my age disappears. Even so, twenty years from now I don’t think I’ll be able to travel as much. I will continue to speak. I hope to have my book finished by then. [Laughs] And enjoy life! Simply! To laugh, to be healthy, to enjoy life!
Q: Do you agree with the phrase: “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary”?
LC: Many people feel that the only way to be really successful is to have your name in an article, to be published, to be famous worldwide. I never had that fame and yet I consider myself a successful woman. From my point of view, I don’t have to appear on television to feel rewarded. I’m the kind of person who puts my hand where it’s needed. I’m an eternal student and I go home happy when a patient tells me, “Thank you so much!” That’s success. One patient at a time, one person at a time. You have to work hard, but success depends on more than that. For some people, it’s natural to be a kind person, altruistic, and in many ways that should be the meaning of being a doctor. To care! If you don’t truly believe that, studying hard will never be enough. And we can never, ever, look at the success of another person and think that it’s our own.
Q: If you were face to face with a stranger for two minutes, what do you think your eyes would communicate?
LC: I want to go to the party! [Laughs] I’m just kidding. It’s all about the body language and it’s complex, based, frequently, on first impressions. For example, I laugh at myself a lot and always have a very upright posture. So I think that in two minutes I can affirm and convey a sense of well-being, that I am well, and that I’m a good person!
“I wanted people to look at me and see not a black woman, but someone who could get the job done, be very successful and respected.”
“I’ve found this new calling, this ability to inspire medical students.”