Mother-Daughter Docs Talk On NPR About Overcoming Racism

By James T. Mulder
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dr. Sharon Brangman and her daughter, Dr. Jenna Lester, discuss how race and gender have affected their careers in an episode of “StoryCorps” which airs today on National Public Radio.


Dr. Sharon Brangman, the head of geriatric medicine at Upstate Medical University, used to think the racism and sexism she’s battled throughout her career would vanish by the time her children grew up.

Now that her 29-year-old daughter is a doctor training to be a dermatologist in California, Brangman realizes she was overly optimistic.

“You think this should be over by now, but it’s still happening in my daughter’s generation,” she says.

Brangman and her daughter, Dr. Jenna Lester, discuss how race and gender have affected their careers in an episode of “StoryCorps” which airs today on National Public Radio and is available on NPR’s website.

StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit that gives people the opportunity to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. The unstructured conversations are archived in the National Library of Congress. NPR airs some of the segments.

Brangman, 62, of Syracuse, was asked to share her story on StoryCorps by Danielle Roth, a Syracuse University graduate.

Roth is a former StoryCorps intern now working as an audio producer at Vanity Fair. While she was at SU, Roth interviewed Brangman for the book,”Triple triumph,” the story of Brangman and two other pioneering women doctors at Upstate — Ruth Weinstock, a diabetes expert, and Patricia Numann, a breast cancer surgeon. SU published that book online last fall.

In the book, Brangman says people sometimes assume she’s not a doctor because she’s a black woman.
As a result, hospital visitors have asked her to empty bed pans.
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A nurse once snatched a patient chart from Brangman’s hand and told her, “You have no right to look at that.”

Brangman’s family moved from New York City to Syracuse when she was 13. Brangman said she and other black students in Syracuse city schools were encouraged to learn typing, auto mechanics and take other vocational education classes.

“That was not the path I wanted to go on. I wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid,” Brangman says.
Her mother, one of Syracuse’s first black nurse practitioners, insisted Brangman take calculus and earth science, and go to college.

After graduating from Nottingham High School, Brangman received a scholarship to SU then went to medical school at Upstate. She worked her way up the ranks at Upstate from assistant professor to chief of geriatrics and distinguished service professor. She served a stint as president of the American Geriatrics Society.

Racism is not as blatant now as it was when she started out in medicine, but “it’s still baked into the system,” Brangman says.

“It’s still a profession where women of color are considered phenomenons … that maybe you are only here because of affirmative action and you don’t really belong,” she says. “There’s always a level of having to prove yourself and work twice as hard to show you can do the work.”

Brangman said her mother emphasized the importance of education. She did the same thing with her own children. Brangman also has a son, Jordan Lester, 31, a business entrepreneur, in Newark, New Jersey. He went to Cornell. Jenna went to Harvard, then completed medical school at Brown University.

Jenna was exposed to medicine early. Brangman used to bring her to the office.

One of Jenna’s earliest memories is when Brangman came to her first grade class at Tecumseh Elementary School and dissected cow hearts to show the youngsters how the body works.

The presentation impressed Jenna daughter and most of the youngsters, except one boy who fainted.

“I did get a little nervous when the kid started swooning,” Brangman says.

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