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Dr. Johnnie Willis opens up about being a doctor of color in the Lehigh Valley

Despite growing diversity in the region few African American physicians are coming here

Dr. Johnnie Willis has been delivering babies at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem for 40 years, but has never worked with an African American medical resident. PHOTO/SUSAN L. ANGSTADT

If you are living in the Lehigh Valley, it’s likely you know someone who Dr. Johnnie Willis has brought into the world.  For nearly four decades, Willis, a gynecologist and obstetrician, has been delivering babies at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem. 

In fact, on one cold winter night a little over 13 years ago, he delivered my daughter Annabelle. Due to a spinal fusion for scoliosis as a teen, I couldn’t have an epidural to numb the pain of childbirth. And despite my fears that I couldn’t do it without one, Dr. Willis never wavered in believing that I could. He was an anchor of support and confidence when I, and countless other mothers-to-be, desperately needed it. 

The fact that Dr. Willis is African American, is both important and unimportant in his story. He played a vital role that had nothing to do with race in the lives of so many in the Lehigh Valley. And yet, the fact that he is one of the very few African American physicians in the Lehigh Valley, does matter. 

Willis grew up visiting relatives in the south at a time when “Whites Only” signs could still be seen at restaurants and water fountains.  He came to the Lehigh Valley to work as an obstetrician in the very early 1980’s, where most of his patients and colleagues would be white. 

And over the last 40 years, while the population of African Americans, Latinos and other races has grown in the Lehigh Valley, the number of African American doctors, has not. The shortage is so great, in fact, that it was difficult to find black doctors in our area to interview for this article.

But it’s not just the Lehigh Valley that faces a shortage of African American doctors. Less than six percent of medical school graduates nationwide are African American. Only 1,069 out of 19,254 medical school graduates were black in 2017, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

With so few African American physicians to serve as role models, both now and in years past, what drew Dr. Willis to a career in medicine?  

“My parents stressed education to me when I was a young,” he said. “I clearly remember the day that changed my life. It was December 17, 1963. My family had moved from Washington D.C., where everyone I knew was black, to the suburbs of Maryland. It was my first day going  to a white school. I looked around and thought, ‘I’m going to study hard and show everyone that I’m as smart as anyone else.”

As he grew into a young man, Willis realized that he loved science and helping people and was accepted into the medical school at the University of Iowa. He decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology because it combined elements of pediatrics and surgery, two of his interests.

“We’ve come a long way since my years growing up in the south,” says Dr. Johnnie Willis, a gynecologist and obstetrician at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem for 40 years, and one of only a few black doctors in the Lehigh Valley.

One of only three African Americans in his medical school class of 170, he graduated in 1980, moved back to the east coast to be closer to family, and began working in the Lehigh Valley.

“I’ve been at St. Luke’s almost 40 years,” Willis said. “At first I had to get used to not having a lot of black people around. But we’ve come a long way since my years growing up in the south.”

Willis said that he loves the Lehigh Valley and St. Luke’s but is aware of racism, though he has not encountered outright racist comments.

“Black people are always aware of racism,” he said. “ It’s just a way of life.”

Willis described an incident where he was traveling with his wife, who is white, and as he was walking around in a store, he realized he was being followed by someone who was suspicious of him, likely due to his race. His wife was completely unaware he said, because it isn’t something she has grown up to be sensitive to.

Here in the Valley and at work, Willis rarely encounters overt racism, but still laments the small number of black doctors in the area. In all his years here, he said, he has never worked with an African American medical resident.

“The Lehigh Valley is still somewhat unknown to those who live in more metropolitan areas of the country,” Willis said. “Black people who are going to medical school in places like Philadelphia don’t really know the Valley. I love it here, the peace and quiet, the schools, the proximity to the cities…but other black med students are likely to want to go to school and practice in areas where there are more people that look like them.”

To Willis, area hospitals need to make an effort to reach those minority medical students in the bigger cities and tell them about the Lehigh Valley, so that it becomes an attractive option to them. 

He also believes that medical schools should make recruiting minorities a bigger priority. “When I was at the University of Iowa, they were actively looking for minorities to apply and enroll and were offering excellent financial aid to those students,” he said. “That initiative is no longer. We need more programs like that, which will encourage black students who might not have the means to go to medical school otherwise, to pursue a career in medicine.”

Willis said that it is the students, the younger generations, who will push for more diversity and inclusivity in medicine, however. 

“The younger generations of minorities are coming up and they want to make change,” he said. “If they are willing to do the work, they can do it. They just have to put the work in.”

And Willis acknowledges that while there are more minorities in medicine in the area than in years past, the numbers need to grow and change is still needed. 

“There are more black and brown people working around me now,” he said,  “but I would like to see more in health care administration. I don’t see anyone who looks like me in administration.”

Yet, when Willis looks back over his long career, and then forward to the future, he feels positive. 

“It’s important to know how far our nation has come,” he said, “and where we are going. We are getting there. I love my community and my work. We are getting there.”

Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at dnixon@bridgetowermedia.com. or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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