Woman of the Year Speech by Freda Lewis-Hall, MD

HBA 2011 Woman of the Year Freda Lewis-Hall, MD
HBA 2011 Woman of the Year Freda Lewis-Hall, MD

Thank you all – and greetings. Good morning to those of you who are in San Francisco.  Good evening to those of you who are in Paris.  And thanks to all of you who are sitting here with us today in New York.

Thank you, Ian, for your kind and generous introduction… for your leadership of Pfizer… and for your mentorship of me. Thank you, Toni Hoover – for believing in me… and nominating me for this incredible honor. You have been an amazing colleague and friend. And thank you to those of you who supported this nomination with beautiful thoughts, remembrances  and recognition. I also want to thank the HBA as an organization for all that you’ve done for me, all the support that you’ve provided And, of course, thanks to the HBA Woman of the Year committee and the leadership of the HBA for this honor.

My daughter cautioned me.  I was preparing my remarks, and she said, “Please be brief, first of all. Don’t think you’re at the Academy Awards. And don’t tell those stories you always tell.” So I’m sorry, Erin. I can’t take any of your advice today.

A special thanks to my mother and father. My mother, Jeanette Lewis, is not here in person today – she died the summer of my first year of medical school – but she is here in me and around me in spirit, as she always is. My father, Harvey Lewis, 92 years young, is here today. Daddy, will you stand, please? Thanks to you and Mommy for whispering into my ear by night that you believed I could fly… and for sacrificing by day to give wings to my dreams. You are why I soar.

To my husband Randy – my heart-throb and soul-mate since we were 17 years old. Thank you for pushing me or pulling me on the days I thought I could and carrying me on the days I thought I couldn’t. You are why I stand.

To my children, Erin, Justin, and Austin – you have brought me unspeakable joy – I am proud of you more and more each day. You are why I strive.

To my family and lifelong friends – thank you for being at my side and having my back. You are why I share.

To each of you here – my colleagues and mentors – new and longstanding. You are why I serve.

I’ve wanted to be a physician since I was six, and that was the gutsy goal for an African American girl in the sixties. But you’ve heard all the people that have supported me and moved me forward who have held my feet to the fire and held my feet to the ground to allow me to do some of the things that I said that I wanted to do. I served in many capacities as a physician, and I appreciate each and every one of those.  I’ve worked with some of the most amazing people in the world, and for that I am grateful.

So I really have a question and a challenge ‑‑ a question and a challenge.  Why is it then if we do so much, if we have such great meaning, if we give so much, that we are not respected and trusted by the very people that we seek to serve?  I’m baffled.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been baffled.  When I was a teenager, andno testifying from my friends and family who were there … I was an odd child. You know, I wasn’t very liked, and I wasn’t very likeable. I collected snakes and had pet mice. And I always begged my father to take me to the medical museum in Washington, DC, so that I could see organs in formaldehyde in jars.  You might imagine I was not seen as the party girl.

So I came home one afternoon in just a tizzy, and I asked my mother to help me understand why I was so unliked. I didn’t get it. I worked hard. I helped people. I did everything I thought I could do. Wasn’t I a good person? I asked my mother that that afternoon, and I was.  I was … you know, this was gut wrenching for me as an adolescent, and my mother asked me a question that only she could.  She said, “Really, if you are who you think you are, why don’t they see it?”  I said, “Well, maybe I need to work to turn them around.”  She said, “Maybe, but maybe you need to work to turn you around.”

So my question today is whether or not we need to work to turn ourselves around. We’ve done incredible things. We’ve saved many lives. But is there something more we can do as a health care industry to win back the trust of the very people who need us, the very people we want to serve?

My father, though, as wise as he is, had the framework for me to build a solution. He said, “If you want to add value, here’s how you will do it.  Think about who you bring behind, what you leave behind, and what you learn along the way.”  Who you bring behind, what you leave behind, and what you’ll learn along the way ‑‑ those resonate with me every day. Who am I bringing behind? What am I leaving behind? What am I learning this day?

So I thought of those things as best I could as an adolescent, and I pulled from my family experiences, me young and not having a lot of life experiences under my belt, so who could I bring behind, and what could I learn about that?

Ian spoke about diversity and about inclusion. He talked about the unconscious biases that we carry, and certainly the conscious ones. I learned a valuable lesson from my father and his brothers and sisters. He was one of 16 children.  Number 6, my uncle, was struck by polio when he was six years old. In Richmond, Virginia, in 1925 ‑‑ imagine that for a minute– the healthcare that he would receive, the attention, the support ‑‑ none, if any at all. But his brothers and sisters included him in everything. He was different, but they never left him behind.

When the brothers get together with their stories, one of the stories was about literally getting him around. How do we get him around?  How do we not leave him behind? They collected bits and pieces on the streets in Richmond, Virginia, a wheel here, a fine piece of wood there, and they fashioned him a wagon. It was in that way that they ensured that their brother was never left behind. He couldn’t attend school, so they taught him at night.  He couldn’t play with them, but he was always at their side.

They thought my uncle would only live six months. He instead lived to be 76. Towards the end of his life, as we looked back, he’d accomplished so much. He had become a proficient tailor and dressed me on many a day, as well as my cousins. He was wise, and he supported us. If there was anything that my uncle could do, he did it for me, his brothers, his sisters, his family, the community. He ended up pulling himself up and became a teacher in the Prince Georges County Schools. He taught handicapped children in those schools how to work with their hands, and to be productive.

What if he had been left behind? What if they have made the judgments about him, that he couldn’t play with them, that he couldn’t learn from them? It’s who you bring behind.

What about what we leave behind? What is it that we can do day on day, bit by bit?  My father refined his wisdom for me when I asked one day with grandiose notions, “What is it that I would leave as a legacy?”

You see, my father’s very calm. He looked at me like quizzically and said, “Legacy?”  He said, “Don’t worry about leaving a legacy. Leave a mark. Your marks will become your legacy.”

And so, I began to think about it, and I learned the same lesson over and over about seeking to leave a legacy with doing so by leaving marks.  The healthcare industry today has an opportunity, I believe, to leave some really significant marks. Our science is poised to answer some of the most vexing problems ever. Our assets for people who never would have seen meaningful healthcare is reaching up here and around the globe. We have a chance to deliver on the promise a single patient at a time.

I learned this lesson before … before with my Dad, and looked at some of the family ways in which this became important, and I did my best to leave my marks wherever I could. But, you know, I’m not a fast learner. So when I had an opportunity to do the television show, Ed Jones, who was the General Manager of PBS knew I wanted to be on television. He worked with me. Ed asked me one day before our first show aired … it was a show on diabetes. He sat me down and he said, “What do you want to get out of this?”  I said, “I want the people of the world to have better health because they have all this information.”  He just kind of looked at me.  He said, “Try again.”

I said, “Oh, I want the people of Washington, D.C. and the communities……”  Ed shook his head.

I said, “Okay, okay.  I want one diabetic ‑‑ one ‑‑ that didn’t know they had diabetes to find out by virtue of the show that we air. I want to save those legs, those eyes, that heart, those kidneys, by virtue of one thing we say in this half hour show.”  He said, “That we might be able to do.”

So about three weeks later, of course, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Yeah, well, you know, we’re changing the world right now, but I’ll tell you that it’s one diabetic.”

So I ended up in the Safeway store around the corner from my house in Washington. There was an older gentleman pushing a cart. He kept looking at me. And he finally pushed over it to me, and he said, “Ain’t you that young child on television?” He said, “Yeah, yeah.  My daughter was watching that show and said, ‘Daddy, come here.  I think you might have this.’  And she took me to the doctor and sure enough, I had a touch of sugar.”

There he was, my one. I had done it.

I think we work with a single patient at a time ‑‑ just one at a time, just a little bit. But as I look out over this audience, and as I think about all of the dedicated and committed people that we have across our health care industry worldwide, think about what one at a time would get us ‑‑ who you bring behind, what you leave behind.

And what is it that we’ve learned along the way? I think we’ve learned that it’s not about me, it’s about we. I think we’ve learned that the silos that we have are only to our disruption, and that we should really think about ways to advance ourselves to support others in each and every way, that our competitors are actually our partners, that the people that we’re secreting from now become the people that we share with, and that together we can actually bring this home.

What will we leave behind? I’m trying to leave my one at a time. I’m trying to make my mark. I challenge each of you to do the same. I challenge each of us to have a crisis, if you would, of identity when we go home tonight and ask ourselves whether or not it’s them that needs to turn around or us that needs to turn around, whether or not there’s some way for us to recommit ourselves, reenergize ourselves, reform ourselves, to be everything the patients we serve need us to be, and then some.

And, again, what I’ve learned along the way is that it’s about the people. It’s about your commitment. It’s about your heart.  It’s about your will.  You can change from today who we are from now and forever. Thank you.

This speech was delivered at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association‘s Woman of the Year Luncheon in New York City on May 5, 2011. The speech was broadcast live to Paris, France and San Fransisco, California.

Photo by Claire Allison Photography


2 thoughts on “Woman of the Year Speech by Freda Lewis-Hall, MD

  1. Dr. Lewis-Hall is truly an inspiration. I am a new member of HBA and this was my first event. As an African American woman who is making her way through this industry it was an honor to sit in the audience and become so moved by her wisdom, honesty, faith in the industry and most of all her commitment to patients. I am so glad to have a copy of her speech because there were so many little pearls that I was trying to remember to take with me. Dr. Lewis-Hall you are truly deserving of this honor and I hope to have the honor of meeting you one day. Thank you for being who you are.

  2. I saw you on Dr. Phil today. You are a beautiful, sensitive, admirable woman. I just wanted to relay that to you for no particular reason other than I do admire you.

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