For Dr. Ashley Denmark, her medical journey began when she was a child battling asthma and had limited access to a doctor. With hard work and determination, Dr. Denmark went from washing dishes in the same hospital that she became the first Black Woman Family Medicine Physician of. When she isn’t saving lives or being an amazing mother and wife, she pours her heart into Project Diversify Medicine. As the CEO and Founder, her mission is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the doctor workforce.
“20 years ago I was washing dishes in the hospital basement. Now I am Doctor of the Month for the very same hospital system. This moment is even more special as the First Black Woman Family Medicine Physician at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.”
Tell us how you began your medical journey.
AD: This journey began because I didn’t have access to a doctor. I would have to travel almost 45 min to see my doctor - an eternity in kid years. Often by the time I showed up, I was in distress due to asthma and often needed to go to the hospital for admission. My pediatrician planted the seed of getting my white coat at the early age of 7. He is no longer here, but I would remember watching him during our visits and always thinking I wanted to be like him. Asthma had almost taken my life on several occasions and I was always captivated with how he was able to save me every time. So I feel like that was the little seed that set me on this path to being Dr. Denmark. It wasn’t until I was about 15 when I started exploring the medical field. I spent my summers doing chemistry camps for aspiring doctors and interning in the post op surgical unity transpiring patients. It was these experiences that intensified my desire to pursue medicine.
Who was/is your inspiration, helping you get where you are today?
AD: My children are my biggest inspiration. I came to med school 36 weeks pregnant with my first child, Olivia. To be honest, I didn’t visualize myself staying for more than a semester. I was going to “come and see what it was like” and leave the following year. I was not very confident in my abilities to be a mother, wife and medical student. I remember the night before my first biochem test, staying up all night vomiting and trying to read my biochem book while helping my husband write his first grad school paper at USC. I wanted to give up, but I knew I couldn’t because of Olivia. The following day, I sat for my first biochem test and I just knew I bombed it. However to my surprise, I got an 82. It was at that moment I knew I could do it
What does being a woman in medicine mean to you?
AD: It is so empowering. To know my very presence is breaking down barriers always brings joy and meaning to the work I do. As the first black female family medicine doctor at my hospital in its 130 year history serves as a reminder of why inclusion of women and minorities must be a forefront issue as there are still places where we need to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling. I am always proud to be a part of the unofficial Women in Medicine Club as we are the epitome of strength because we are saving lives all while raising the next generation.
What impactful image do you hope to project to the younger generation of women looking up to you as you pave the way in medicine?
AD: I hope to show the world to live a life with no ceilings. Too many women have been boxed in and told that having a family and medical degree isn’t possible. This is furthest from the truth and I hope that any woman reading this now who may find themselves wanting to travel this path use my story and other women in medicine as inspiration.
After all that has transpired this past year, what does Black History Month mean to you as a medical professional?
AD: Honestly, I look forward to this month to shine a light on honoring our greats past and current. As a black doctor, I feel it is my responsibility to help reshape the narrative of what it means to be Black in America. As a doctor I want to place a strong emphasis on the barriers we shattered and showcase that we as black folks in medicine are living black history and represent excellence; not the stereotypes that we have heard echoed over social media or tv. Most importantly we lost two women in medicine -Breonna Taylor and Tatiana Jefferson and we must honor them and continue to empower others to fulfill the dreams that were taken from them unjustly.
What are your thoughts on the amount of representation and diversity within the medical field?
AD: To be frank it is unacceptable. It is clear that minorities are not being given the same opportunities in medicine and if they are granted access it’s often to lower entry positions without much opportunity to advance upward. My focus has been dedicated particularly to making sure minorities can get into medical school since our presence in this area is significantly underrepresented. According to the AAMC 2019 stats, there are 516,000 white doctors yet only 45,000 Black doctors , 53,000 Hispanic doctors, 2700 Native American/Alaskan Native and 941 Pacific Islander. Seeing these stats is proof that there is inequity in the admission process and shows a dire need to start paving more pathways for us to get into med school. However, diversity is not often viewed as an urgent matter- it is one addressed in a series of discussions that point out “more diversity is needed” yet it often fails to create tangible pathways that can address the diversity gap. This is why we created Project Diversify Medicine where our goal is to create resources and realistic pathways for Minorities to get their white coats too.
How has your childhood and/or family dynamic influenced your path into medicine?
AD: They are like the foundation to my resiliency. My support system aka my cheer squad was small; mainly it was my parents and my husband. My parents always supported everything I did. My mom worked in daycare and my dad was a construction worker and didn’t know much about the medical field, but they gave endless support in helping me pursue every new adventure I had to get my white coat. I was a non traditional student and spent time in Boston to take classes to improve my med school application before applying. Most people laughed when I said I was moving to Boston with literally $600 in my pocket, no job with the intent of taking classes to apply to med school. However my parents never said I couldn’t do it; they only looked for ways to support me. It is their support that has kept me going this long as they instilled in me the belief that I can do anything.
Does your partnership/ marriage have an impact on your professional career today?
AD: Absolutely! He is the glue to this whole operation. I think a lot of people always ask how can I balance so much and it is really because of my husband. He understands the demands of my life and has always found ways to support me. I just told him recently how thankful I am to have him in my life because he has never been the type to say “ you can’ t pursue this now.” He has always found a way to support my wild 3 am dreams about writing a children’s book Olivia’s Doctor adventures or starting an organization like Project Diversify Medicine. Plus, he is a super dad as he would travel 2 hours to law school each way and still make it home to pick up the kids on time for daycare. So I can truly say he is the rock in our lives to keep everything in this busy universe centered.
What are the challenges you have personally faced being an African American in medicine?
AD: I think my biggest challenge is overcoming the lack of support from the medical field. I would say a lot times I felt “othered” meaning I often felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t have a flock of mentors extending me opportunities for their guidance like my white colleagues. I found myself often having to walk a journey blindly relying on support from my fellow minority peers; so it was like the blind leading the blind. No one pulled me to the side and said here is how you negotiate your first job contract or here are tips for passing your boards. I was given the same access to medical education as my white peers but I didn't receive the same support.
What is one piece of advice you would give to the younger generation of African Americans pursuing medicine?
AD: Simply do not give up. This journey is full of ups and downs. Keep moving forward no matter what. Remember, moments of failure do not mean you are not qualified to become a doctor. Every doctor fails at some point; this is the only way we learn how to become a good doctor. Use every let down as a lesson on how to be better. Remember, rejection is just a redirection to the right place where you are meant to be.
Fun Fact 1
AD: I was a photographer during med school-shhhh don’t tell anybody. I was pressed for money as a new mom and my husband was in law school, so I decided to take my talents for taking pictures of my children and decided to open my photography business. I started off with kids shoots and worked my way to actual weddings. It was super fun to balance reading the knot magazine in between my anatomy exams. I used the money to pay daycare and for my medical boards.
Fun Fact 2
AD: If I wasn’t a doctor, I would probably be an artist. I think that is why I gravitated to social media so strongly. I love the process of creating and bringing visions to life. I feel like we are in a modern day renaissance with the amount of creatives we have today and I love every minute of being in an era of expression through social media.
Tell us how and why you started Project Diversify Medicine.
I started Project Diversify Medicine after the first month of my residency when I saw how colorless the hospital hallways were while walking one morning. I walked by the wall paintings, doctors lounge, admin offices and there was barely anyone there who reflected my image. It was in that moment of clarity. I decided to start PDM. I wanted to create a space where we can be seen and find ways to add more melanin to medicine.
As the CEO and Founder of Project Diversify Medicine, what is your mission?
Our mission is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the doctor workforce. We provide accessible, inclusive, affordable educational resources for minorities in medicine so there is more transparency to the white coat journey. I strive to make sure our content and education helps empower our students and not make them feel like insiders. So intersect culture with medicine as this pipeline that needs to be strengthened. So using Kobe or Beyonce in content to discuss medical boards or how to apply to med school is the norm here.
What upcoming events do you have for PDM?
For our Pre-Med Trap Lab
1/28/21 Get it right Get it Tight-Getting Organized to Apply to Med School Webinar
1/29/21- hosting group office hours so students can meet with a doctor and get their questions about med school answered
2/4/21 -Level Up Your App Game, everything you need to know about AACOMAS, TMDSAS and AMCAS
For our PDM followers
2/3 /21 Before you apply to med school Webinar
2/6/21 -Virtual Suture Clinic
2/8/21- Doctor Power Hour- Live Q and A about applying to Med school (@ 7pm on IG Live)
2/15/21- ABC’s of applying to Residency
2/28/21 - Virtual Shadowing - Family Medicine
To learn more about Ashley Denmark, DO, please visit her @drashleydenmark and @projectdiversifymedicine or discover more about her mission HERE.