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For These 3 Women, Medical Careers Are A Family Affair

Jan 26, 2018
Originally published on January 26, 2018 8:28 am

Sharon Brangman knew at a young age — around 10 years old — that she wanted to be a doctor one day.

So when a school guidance counselor put her in typing and home economics classes, her mother, Ruby Brangman, wouldn't have it. Ruby made a trip to her daughter's school to address the matter.

"Grandmother was like, 'Oh, no way,' " Sharon tells her daughter, Jenna Lester, in a StoryCorps interview in New York City. "I remember she went up to the school and said, 'I want my daughter transferred so she could go to college.' "

Ruby was one of the first black women nurse practitioners in the state of New York. She received her license from the University of Rochester in 1974, when the role of the profession was still being defined, according to the school's medical center.

Sharon, now 62, recalls one of her medical school professors, a white man, holding up a picture of a Negro League baseball player while he talked about muscles in "black dialect." The same professor showed Playboy centerfolds when discussing anatomy.

"When you were taking a really hard test, he would walk behind, linger over your shoulder," Sharon says. "And he had this horrible pipe. You'd hear a little puff sound and smell this smoke come over you. And he would do that to all the black students."

Looking back, Sharon says she remembers her mother telling her that it didn't matter if her teacher liked her or not. Her job there was to learn.

"She didn't go to college, but if she had come up in a different era, I think she would have been the first physician in the family," Sharon says.

Instead, Ruby's determination set Sharon on that path — the same one that paved the way for Sharon's daughter, Jenna, who's finishing up the final year of her dermatology residency in California.

Jenna, 29, recalls one of her more vivid memories that helped her gain a greater understanding of her mom's profession. On a visit to Jenna's first-grade classroom, her mother split open a cow's heart and showed the class the different chambers and valves.

"The typical person who has a long line of doctors in their family are often white men that I sit next to in class, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather were doctors," Jenna says. "And it's cool to be a part of the same thing, but it looks very different."

"To realize all the things that you had to go through and that Grandma had to go through to get me to where I am today," Sharon says, "I feel like I'm working for a little bit more than just myself."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren and Danielle Roth.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday and time for StoryCorps. Dr. Jenna Lester's grandmother was one of the first African-American nurse practitioners in New York. A generation later, Jenna's mother Sharon Brangman became a doctor. And she tells Jenna it was her own mother's determination that set her on the path.

SHARON BRANGMAN: I was probably about 10 years old, and I had already decided I was going to be a doctor. But the guidance counselor put me into typing, home economics. And I came home with my books. And grandmother was like, oh, no way. And I remember she went up to the school and said, I want my daughter transferred, so she could go to college.

JENNA LESTER: Tell me about your medical school experience.

BRANGMAN: There was one professor. He would take a picture of an old Negro League baseball player holding a bat and start talking about the muscles using black dialect. He would show us Playboy centerfold when he was talking about anatomy. And when you were taking a really hard test, he would walk behind, linger over your shoulder. And he had this horrible pipe. You'd hear a little puff sound and smell the smoke come over you. And he would do that to all the black students.

So this was the classroom. And I remember my mother telling me it doesn't matter if the teacher likes you or not, your job is to learn. I mean she didn't go to college. But if she had come up in a different era, I think she would have been the first physician in the family. Was there a moment growing up when you realized what I did?

LESTER: Well, I remember knowing you were a doctor. I guess, my earliest memory is when you came to the first grade classroom to dissect cow hearts.

BRANGMAN: Oh, yeah, that's right.

LESTER: And then you cut them open, and you were like showing us the valves and the different chambers of the heart. And I was like, wow, this is so cool. The typical person who has a long line of doctors in their family are like these often white men that I sit next to in class whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather were doctors. And it's cool to be a part of the same thing, but that looks very different. To realize all the things that you had to go through and that Grandma had to go through to get me to where I am today, I feel like I'm working for a little bit more than just myself.

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MARTIN: That was Sharon Brangman and Jenna Lester at StoryCorps in New York City. Jenna is finishing her residency in dermatology in California. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.