WEEKLY / august 1, 2012, VOL. 2, NO. 33   Send Feedback l View Online
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This is part of a series of biographies excerpted from the new book Women in Psychiatry: Personal Perspectives published by American Psychiatric Publishing. The book was edited by Donna M. Norris, M.D., Geetha Jayaram, M.D., and Annelle B. Primm, M.D. The book may be ordered here; APA members are eligible for a discount.

Farmer’s Daughter Excels in Psychiatry

by deborah deas, m.d., m.p.h.

Deborah DeasAdams Run, S.C., sits 30 miles south of Charleston, nestled among oaks and azaleas and surrounded by farmland and the homes of the farmers. My father, Mike Deas, was a well-known farmer there, and my mother, Carrie Deas, was an anchor for the community.

One of my favorite pastimes in that country town was sitting on the front porch with my parents and grandfather. The hours I spent carefully listening and offering my opinions to the elders proved more beneficial than any college course I ever took. The older people usually started with stories of the past, deviating to what life would look like if things were different and admonishing me not to squander opportunities. They emphasized the importance of setting goals and keeping your eyes on the prize. Service was important, and the ways that one could serve were numerous. The elders frequently said, “We all stand on someone else’s shoulders.”

The notion that one should learn from others, as well as teach others, was as common as baked bread. My parents instilled in me that education is the key to a fruitful future and that it is something no one can take away from you. They frequently reminded me, too, of the writing of our Baha’i Faith: “Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches.”

After graduating from high school at 16, I attended the College of Charleston for a bachelor of science degree in biology and University of South Carolina for a master of public health degree. Soon after receiving my M.P.H., I married Alonzo Nesmith Jr. We lived in Iowa while he pursued a master’s degree in hospital administration at the University of Iowa, and I worked in research there—but soon we were back in Charleston. I worked in research and began medical school at the Medical University of South Carolina.

At MUSC, I felt certain I would pursue a career in family medicine and one day return to Adams Run to care for people who are poor and underserved. But once I began my clinical clerkships, I was mesmerized by several of the other specialties. I enjoyed all of the clinical rotations, but I was struck by the lack of attention paid to obvious psychological and social issues affecting the patients. When I would attempt to introduce these issues during my presentation of the patient, they were usually dismissed. Yet it became apparent to me that the clinical outcomes of the majority of patients were influenced by psychological and social issues. At the same time, in my psychiatry rotation, I was intrigued by the emphasis on the biological, psychological, and social aspects of each patient and quickly recognized that I really had to know and understand what I had learned during my internal medicine rotation to be a competent psychiatrist.

I chose to stay at MUSC for my residency because of its stellar reputation, my spouse’s job, and the closeness of family. We lived about 5 miles from my parents. The week after I started my internship, my parents called to inform me that I was on the front page of our local newspaper, The Post and Courier. The article highlighted the farm girl from rural Adams Run, S.C., becoming the first physician in her family.

I quickly learned that I was one of two African Americans among the 500 residents at MUSC. Within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, I was the only African-American psychiatry resident among the 55 residents in training. It was not uncommon for me to be mistaken by many for a social worker, a secretary, or a ward clerk despite wearing my white coat with Deborah Deas, M.D., written on it. This mistake was even made by some of my M.D. peers. I found that the best response was to ask, “And just why do you think I am a social worker?”

When applying and interviewing for an academic position, I received some great offers. Important factors in deciding which one to accept were my spouse’s employment, our daughter’s education and her contact with extended family, and our parents’ health and well-being, particularly that of my father, then 88. Again, I decided to stay in Charleston, and I joined the MUSC psychiatry faculty as an assistant professor and as the director of a program I would develop the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program.

In 2001, I was named associate dean for admissions for the College of Medicine. At the same time, I was asked to help form a committee to develop a strategic diversity plan for the medical college. Our assessment found that in medicine, there were 35 members of underrepresented groups (African American, Hispanic, and Native American) among the 800 faculty members, and 16 underrepresented-in-medicine residents among the 522 house-staff members. Underrepresented medical students constituted 10% of the student body. The assessment also revealed that fewer than 20 underrepresented individuals were invited to present grand rounds or participate in seminar series in the College of Medicine over the previous several years.

Each department was asked to develop a diversity plan. Over six years of careful implementation and evaluation of these plans, we made unprecedented progress. The number of underrepresented-in-medicine faculty members nearly doubled, the number of underrepresented residents nearly quadrupled, and underrepresented individuals constituted 18% of the medical student body. Pipeline and mentoring programs were developed. We were able to recruit and matriculate 10 African-American males to the graduating class for four consecutive years. These African-American males developed the mentoring program “Gentleman and a Scholar Mentoring Program,” which focuses on high school and undergraduate African-American males interested in the field of medicine.

My early experiences shaped me and helped me establish the principles that guided my professional development: establishing goals, engaging in service, seeking and obtaining mentorship, networking, refining leadership skills, and taking care of yourself and your loved ones.

The farmer’s daughter has come a long way. I have stood on the shoulders of many, pushing forward with an abiding faith that there was nothing that I could not accomplish.

Deborah Deas, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and senior associate dean for medical education in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

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