“Never be afraid to be the first. Know your dream, and do everything you can to achieve it.” These are the passionate words spoken by Patricia Treadwell, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics and the first African American woman to become a full-time professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.
Her dream of becoming a physician began in childhood and solidified as an adolescent after she read “Damien the Leper,” a biography written by John Farrow. This book brings to life the journey of Father Damien, who comforted the sick and dying in a leper colony on the island of Molokai. Inspired by Father Damien’s story, Treadwell sought the education she would need to become a physician, first earning her bachelor’s degree at IU with honors, then completing medical school at Cornell University. An Indianapolis native, Treadwell decided to move back to Indiana upon graduating from Cornell, not only to be close to family, but to practice as a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Hospital. Her childhood dream had become reality, and she was determined to be the best.
Although she loved her work, Treadwell faced many challenges, specifically regarding assumptions made about her regarding her race. Shortly after starting at Riley, someone asked her where the bathrooms were located. “I didn’t know the answer and pointed in a general direction,” said Treadwell. The person then asked her if she was a patient. “No, this is a children’s hospital,” answered Treadwell. Throughout her career, she has experienced microaggressions such as this.
On another occasion, Treadwell explained that despite her white coat, a parent didn’t identify her as their child’s physician, rather assuming she was a nurse. After she clarified her position, the parent asked, “Did you go to medical school?” Despite these assumptions and remarks, Treadwell learned not to let these microaggressions discourage her from doing what she loves.
Not only does Treadwell love being a physician but interacting with medical students continually inspires her to continue her work at IU School of Medicine. She speaks with them about her past, inspires them to pursue a career in medicine and offers them career and personal advice.
“Decide what you want your life to look like and focus on making that happen,” she often advises students. “Be able to filter advice based on what works for you because sometimes people will discourage you from following your dreams.”
She also advises medical students to stay humble and listen: “Listening to people and not interrupting them is a skill that should be honed.” She adds, “Medicine is a great career for women, because listening is something we tend to do well.”
Some of Treadwell’s proudest moments stem from the interactions she has had with patients and their families. In one instance, Treadwell treated a child with severe allergies and worked with the family to find supplements that would make the child healthy. After a couple months, the child reached full health and Treadwell recalls the grandmother telling her, “You saved his life because other physicians we went to didn’t know what was wrong.”
Treadwell’s lesson on the importance of listening showed when working with a Spanish-speaking mother whose child was previously diagnosed with a brain tumor. Upon seeing Treadwell, the mother voiced her worries through an interpreter, saying she thought her child had another brain tumor because he was continually throwing up. “I spoke with her about all of the other reasons why he could be vomiting, and through the interpreter, she said, ‘I prayed to God to find someone like you.’”
“As a physician, it is essential to connect with families and help them understand their worries,” said Treadwell.
Treadwell’s accomplishments and commitment to medicine is recognized by the IU School of Medicine community with a lecture named in honor of her 40 years of service to the community. The Patricia Treadwell, MD Women in Medicine Lecture explores how the intersections of race and gender affect academic medicine and the health sciences professions.
In the words of Treadwell, “Even if you are the first woman to do a particular specialty, go for it!”