America’s first African-American female orthopedist: A survivor who still inspires

Claudia L. Thomas, MD, surmounted many career and personal obstacles along the way.

Throughout her career, Claudia L. Thomas, MD, recipient of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons 2008 Diversity Award, has tried to improve diversity in the field of orthopedics by mentoring and being a role model for medical students.

In the process, she has inspired many people of all ages and walks of life onto greater achievements through her guidance. That growing group of individuals touched by Thomas’ life experience now includes middle school-aged boys she and her colleagues at Tri-County Orthopaedic Center, Leesburg, Fla., are mentoring through a monthly program.

Thomas Isaac Mitchell, MD; J. Mandume Kerina, MD; and Cedric Tankson, MD, will soon be doing the same with girls in their area.

“It is up to those for whom the doors have been opened, who have been denied in the past, to leave footprints for others to walk in,” Thomas told Orthopedics Today. “For me, this has meant mentoring, speaking and making myself visible so that young people can have an idea that perhaps they can do something other than shoot a basketball into a hoop.”

Role model

God Spare Life,  the autobiography of Claudia L. Thomas, MD
God Spare Life, the autobiography of Claudia L. Thomas, MD, was the No. 1 selling book in 2007 for publisher WME Books.

Courtesy: WME Books

Thomas got her vision through the influence of an early role model.

She received a positive image from her childhood pediatrician, Pearl Foster, MD, an African-American woman who wore a crisp white coat with a stethoscope around her neck.

“It told me this was something I could do; someone I could be,” she said. “This indicates that people doing positive and productive things present a very powerful image for the young mind.”

Among those who inspired and mentored Thomas were orthopedic surgeons Wayne O. Southwick, MD, and Augustus A. White III, MD.

“Mentoring has paid off for me,” she noted. Thomas works with two former students, Mitchell and Kerina, and she mentored one of them since he was 6 years old. “It’s like working with my family,” Thomas said.

As a permanent record of the “footprints” she has followed, as well as a guidepost for anyone seeking to better his or her life, Thomas published her autobiography, God Spare Life, last year.

The title is a farewell commonly used on the island of St. Thomas, where she once lived.

In the book, which she started writing in 1990, Thomas chronicled three critical phases of her life, starting with her years in college, medical school and her residency on the way to becoming the first African-American female orthopedic surgeon.

Southwick and his wife recently contacted Thomas after she sent them a copy of her book. “They gave me accolades. That meant more to me than anything else, that stamp of approval,” Thomas said.

Cancer survivor

The second phase covered in the book describes how she felt her life was spared by God while she took shelter from the wrath that Hurricane Hugo unleashed on the island of St. Thomas in September 1989.

Finally, Thomas wrote about her fight with kidney cancer that ensued right after the storm. She ultimately survived the life-threatening illness by receiving a kidney donated by her sister. Thomas said this trio of life events reminded her intensely of what ultimately matters most in life: Faith and family.

“My parents were the biggest motivators anyone could have. Being denied a higher education themselves, they worshiped education and made sure this was a priority for their children,” she said. “They were really strong.” They mentored the neighborhood children through the church and community in Queens, N.Y., where Thomas was raised.

Post-traumatic stress

In discussing the hurricane, Thomas said, “I think it actually physically pushed me into illness. Stress does play a role in disease. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever gone through. I thought I was going to die.”

Thomas weathered the storm in the home constructed by her husband, a builder on St. Thomas. “For several hours, there was a definite threat of the roof just flying right off because the winds were so fierce. The wind meter broke at 250 mph, so I don’t know what speeds the wind reached after that. It was horrible.”

Claudia L. Thomas, MD mentors children and medical students
Claudia L. Thomas, MD, continues to strive for diversity in her life by mentoring children and medical students of all backgrounds.

Image: George Horsford, The Villages Daily Sun

Prior to moving to St. Thomas from Baltimore, where she was assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins, Thomas showed signs of kidney disease. Initially, her doctors said it might take up to 20 years for her to develop full-blown kidney failure, but they didn’t count on the powerful effect a storm like Hugo could have.

“It was like I went into kidney failure overnight,” she said.

Talented, determined

Thomas is a woman of many talents, which she has capitalized on.

Mentoring has been a life-long gift, which she identified early on and realized was a way to help others. For example, in elementary school, she tutored junior high school students in math.

“I think I have gotten that from my mother who, despite being dyslexic, was always able to teach something,” Thomas said.

In high school and college, Thomas painted and sculpted and she hopes to learn watercolor painting, something she has only dabbled in, when she has more time in her schedule.

As a young woman, she picked up carpentry skills from her father and made some of the furniture that would eventually grace her first homes — a bookcase, table and chairs — some of which her sister still has. At age 51, Thomas learned to speak French. It is never too late to fulfill an ambition, she said.

Thomas seeks to inspire people of all backgrounds and walks of life. “I’d like to make people aware of the fact they have God-given talents. This is promised. It is important to identify what your talents are and then develop them. Don’t bury them in the ground,” she said.

For more information:

  • Claudia L. Thomas, MD, can be reached at Tri-County Orthopaedic Center, 701 Medical Plaza Drive, Leesburg, FL 34748; 352-326-8115; e-mail: cthomasg@jhmi.edu.

Reference:

  • Thomas CL. God Spare Life. Rochester, NY: WME Books; 2007.

Throughout her career, Claudia L. Thomas, MD, recipient of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons 2008 Diversity Award, has tried to improve diversity in the field of orthopedics by mentoring and being a role model for medical students.

In the process, she has inspired many people of all ages and walks of life onto greater achievements through her guidance. That growing group of individuals touched by Thomas’ life experience now includes middle school-aged boys she and her colleagues at Tri-County Orthopaedic Center, Leesburg, Fla., are mentoring through a monthly program.

Thomas Isaac Mitchell, MD; J. Mandume Kerina, MD; and Cedric Tankson, MD, will soon be doing the same with girls in their area.

“It is up to those for whom the doors have been opened, who have been denied in the past, to leave footprints for others to walk in,” Thomas told Orthopedics Today. “For me, this has meant mentoring, speaking and making myself visible so that young people can have an idea that perhaps they can do something other than shoot a basketball into a hoop.”

Role model

God Spare Life,  the autobiography of Claudia L. Thomas, MD
God Spare Life, the autobiography of Claudia L. Thomas, MD, was the No. 1 selling book in 2007 for publisher WME Books.

Courtesy: WME Books

Thomas got her vision through the influence of an early role model.

She received a positive image from her childhood pediatrician, Pearl Foster, MD, an African-American woman who wore a crisp white coat with a stethoscope around her neck.

“It told me this was something I could do; someone I could be,” she said. “This indicates that people doing positive and productive things present a very powerful image for the young mind.”

Among those who inspired and mentored Thomas were orthopedic surgeons Wayne O. Southwick, MD, and Augustus A. White III, MD.

“Mentoring has paid off for me,” she noted. Thomas works with two former students, Mitchell and Kerina, and she mentored one of them since he was 6 years old. “It’s like working with my family,” Thomas said.

As a permanent record of the “footprints” she has followed, as well as a guidepost for anyone seeking to better his or her life, Thomas published her autobiography, God Spare Life, last year.

The title is a farewell commonly used on the island of St. Thomas, where she once lived.

In the book, which she started writing in 1990, Thomas chronicled three critical phases of her life, starting with her years in college, medical school and her residency on the way to becoming the first African-American female orthopedic surgeon.

Southwick and his wife recently contacted Thomas after she sent them a copy of her book. “They gave me accolades. That meant more to me than anything else, that stamp of approval,” Thomas said.

Cancer survivor

The second phase covered in the book describes how she felt her life was spared by God while she took shelter from the wrath that Hurricane Hugo unleashed on the island of St. Thomas in September 1989.

Finally, Thomas wrote about her fight with kidney cancer that ensued right after the storm. She ultimately survived the life-threatening illness by receiving a kidney donated by her sister. Thomas said this trio of life events reminded her intensely of what ultimately matters most in life: Faith and family.

“My parents were the biggest motivators anyone could have. Being denied a higher education themselves, they worshiped education and made sure this was a priority for their children,” she said. “They were really strong.” They mentored the neighborhood children through the church and community in Queens, N.Y., where Thomas was raised.

Post-traumatic stress

In discussing the hurricane, Thomas said, “I think it actually physically pushed me into illness. Stress does play a role in disease. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever gone through. I thought I was going to die.”

Thomas weathered the storm in the home constructed by her husband, a builder on St. Thomas. “For several hours, there was a definite threat of the roof just flying right off because the winds were so fierce. The wind meter broke at 250 mph, so I don’t know what speeds the wind reached after that. It was horrible.”

Claudia L. Thomas, MD mentors children and medical students
Claudia L. Thomas, MD, continues to strive for diversity in her life by mentoring children and medical students of all backgrounds.

Image: George Horsford, The Villages Daily Sun

Prior to moving to St. Thomas from Baltimore, where she was assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins, Thomas showed signs of kidney disease. Initially, her doctors said it might take up to 20 years for her to develop full-blown kidney failure, but they didn’t count on the powerful effect a storm like Hugo could have.

“It was like I went into kidney failure overnight,” she said.

Talented, determined

Thomas is a woman of many talents, which she has capitalized on.

Mentoring has been a life-long gift, which she identified early on and realized was a way to help others. For example, in elementary school, she tutored junior high school students in math.

“I think I have gotten that from my mother who, despite being dyslexic, was always able to teach something,” Thomas said.

In high school and college, Thomas painted and sculpted and she hopes to learn watercolor painting, something she has only dabbled in, when she has more time in her schedule.

As a young woman, she picked up carpentry skills from her father and made some of the furniture that would eventually grace her first homes — a bookcase, table and chairs — some of which her sister still has. At age 51, Thomas learned to speak French. It is never too late to fulfill an ambition, she said.

Thomas seeks to inspire people of all backgrounds and walks of life. “I’d like to make people aware of the fact they have God-given talents. This is promised. It is important to identify what your talents are and then develop them. Don’t bury them in the ground,” she said.

For more information:

  • Claudia L. Thomas, MD, can be reached at Tri-County Orthopaedic Center, 701 Medical Plaza Drive, Leesburg, FL 34748; 352-326-8115; e-mail: cthomasg@jhmi.edu.

Reference:

  • Thomas CL. God Spare Life. Rochester, NY: WME Books; 2007.