Life with Gracie: Gwinnett single mom makes medical history

Thursday, May 25, 2017 @ 5:00 AM

You might say Danielle Ward has lived her entire life for days like this. Rushing off to yet another hospital to train for the day she becomes a full-fledged Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

The thought of such a thing ever happening began, she said recently, when she was no more than 5 and witnessed a doctor perform surgery on television for the first time. Ward knew then that was what she wanted to do, too.

It was a long shot. At that age, she hadn’t seen many doctors who looked like her, and even at 30, the single mother is well aware of the dearth of African-American doctors in general and black female physicians in particular.

There’s a reason for that.

According to the latest U.S. census data, 62.1 percent of the U.S. population is white, 17.4 percent is Hispanic, 13.2 percent is black, and 5.4 percent is Asian. Meanwhile, 60.1 percent of students entering med school between the 2013-14 academic year and the 2015-16 academic year have been white, 22 percent Asian, 9.8 percent Hispanic, and 7.5 percent black, according to the latest data from AAMC, which runs the MCAT, the standardized test that aspiring physicians — MDs and DOs — must take to get into med school. DOs are known for taking a more holistic approach to medicine.

And so is there any wonder a Delta flight attendant late last year barred a black doctor from helping a passenger in distress because the attendant didn’t believe she was a physician? That isn’t an excuse, I’m just saying it’s understandable if you’ve never seen a black doctor in your lifetime.

Lucky for us, it didn’t keep Danielle Ward from dreaming. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a doctor and get this, become a first to accomplish something, anything, like mom, the first African-American woman from Mississippi to graduate from West Point.

After five years and three attempts to get accepted into medical school, after a boatload of rejection letters, Ward is now a fourth-year medical student at Georgia Campus — Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

And that other dream? Mission accomplished.

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Following a late-night runoff election last year, Ward learned that she would become the first osteopathic medical student to head the Student National Medical Association, a position she assumed recently at the organization’s national meeting in Atlanta.

“It felt good,” she said.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It hadn’t been easy.

Born in Germany and raised just about everywhere, Ward graduated in 2005 from North Cobb High School in Kennesaw before heading off to Louisiana State University.

She was a freshman there, when she married, conceived a daughter, and her life took a quick downward spiral. Her husband started to physically abuse her, and a year later, she and her daughter Tiana were forced to flee to the Wards’ home in Mississippi.

Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Ward said she reminded herself that “for every problem, there is a solution.”

Her solution was to persevere. She returned to LSU a few months later for the summer semester.

“I graduated with my class,” she said as a big smile marched across her face.

After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry in 2009, the same year her divorce was final, Ward became a research associate in LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine, a position she held for four years while working on a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn.

She completed the program in 2013 with a 3.7 grade-point average, but even then medical school seemed out of reach. Her MCAT score would rise only so far, but Ward kept knocking on doors, applying to medical schools over three cycles.

“It took me five years, but the third time was the charm,” she said.

In 2014, Ward joined the freshman class at GA-PCOM in Suwanee.

Today, she is a rising senior, and her daughter Tiana, now 10, is a rising fifth-grader.

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Ward was a national chairperson of the SNMA Osteopathic school’s committee during the fall of 2015 when someone on the board sent her a Facebook message.

“Are you going to be the first DO president of the SNMA?” they wanted to know.

Ward had no idea the student organization had never had an osteopathic president. She did know it fit into her dream to follow in her mother’s first footsteps, so she jumped in the race.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At the organization’s annual conference last year in Austin, Texas, Ward made her pitch for the presidency, promising to use her passion and experiences to strengthen diversity in medicine through cultural competency and advocacy, inspire younger generations to pursue medicine, and build future generations of physicians. When she came up with less than 51 percent of the vote and was forced into a runoff, she was given 90 seconds to make her final pitch for why she was best suited to head the organization.

Before she spoke, Ward crafted her statement on pieces of paper. When it was her turn, she rose and looking out on the sea of aspiring doctors and their physician mentors, Ward told them about her 10 years with the organization, her dedication to making it even stronger, and she thanked the many individuals in the organization who inspired and helped her get to that point.

When she sat down, she didn’t know what to think.

At 11:30 p.m. that night in the same banquet hall, Dr. Christen Johnson broke the news.

Ward had made history, becoming the first osteopathic medical student to assume the presidency since the SNMA’s founding in 1964.

Last week, she completed her final medical licensing exam required for graduation. This summer, she will be applying to residency programs. And this time next year, Danielle Ward hopefully will be Dr. Ward, resident physician in general surgery, another first.