Two years ago, Dr. Uché Blacstock’s life was the dictionary definition of good on paper. The Harvard-educated physician was an associate professor of emergency medicine at New York University (a coveted role to which she devoted 10 years of her career), as well as a wife and a mother to two young children. Then in December 2019, just a few months before the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and at least a year before “the great resignation” entered the public lexicon, Blackstock took a leap of faith and left her job and then her marriage, effectively starting over in her early 40s.
“I had established a career. I had a monthly paycheck,” Blackstock tells Iris&Romeo. “I think from the outside, people would probably say that I was very successful. But inside I felt empty and scared because I couldn't do the work that I wanted to do. I couldn't do it authentically.”
For Blackstock, authentic work meant using her education, experience, and power as an academic and a physician to fight racism in medicine and improve healthcare outcomes for the Black community. Unfortunately, like so many Black doctors, Blackstock did not feel supported by her colleagues or the institution she worked for, and in January 2020, in an op-ed for the medical news site, STAT, she put all her cards on the table, writing: “Last month, I made the difficult decision to leave my faculty position at an academic medical center after more than nine years there because of a toxic and oppressive work environment that instilled in me fear of retaliation for being vocal about racism and sexism within the institution.”
Leaving the career she had worked so hard for was equal turns sad and scary, but Blackstock had a goal and plans firmly in place. “I had started working on diversity, equity, and inclusion while I was with my previous employer,” she says. “I was gaining all these new skills and experiences, and I realized I was really good at it. So I said to myself, ‘Uché, you can start your own company.’”
That company became Advancing Health Equity, an organization that partners with health providers, including medical technology companies, hospitals, and academic medical centers to create systems for more racially equitable care.
To financially transition from full-time academia to start-up life, Blackstock began working part-time as an urgent care doctor. Building her company while practicing medicine on the side was going really well until the pandemic hit New York in March of 2020. Because the situation was so dire, Blackstock began taking on more urgent care shifts, leaving her with less time to spend growing Advancing Health Equity. But that didn’t stop her from seeing the need for it everywhere.
In the early days of the pandemic, Black communities in New York City were disproportionately infected with Covid-19 and suffered far graver outcomes, with Black residents dying at twice the rate of white residents. “I remember thinking to myself, this is not why I quit my job,” Blackstock explains. “But I stayed the course. And what I mean by that is that all of the work that was very important to me, the reason why I left to do health equity and racial equity work—I was still thinking about it, even if I couldn’t do it as much.”
Blackstock began writing about what she saw in the urgent care unit and pitching different news outlets. Then she began getting interviews, invitations to write op-eds, and ultimately a platform on MSNBC. Very quickly she became the go-to expert on racial disparities related to the pandemic, as well as other issues close to her heart, like Black maternal health. “Even though things were not going as I had hoped, these other opportunities came up because I stayed the course and I continued to focus on what I really cared about.”
As her profile grew, so did her confidence and awareness that she didn’t need an institution or brand behind her. She recalls a friend saying, “Uché, you don't need to be affiliated with NYU or any other institution, you are valuable on your own,” and how that sentiment really stuck with her. The sentiment was so potent, in fact, that she found herself critically examining other institutions in her life, including her marriage. Not long after leaving her academic post, she left her husband as well. “There are certain roles that we take on within marriage, and I honestly think they're very sexist and patriarchal,” she explains. “I think that for me, I was ultimately making a conscious decision to liberate myself from those sorts of structures.”
Blackstock is quick to say that she doesn’t think her ex-husband was particularly sexist, but in her new role as an entrepreneur, she struggled to live up to some of the standards we place on women and mothers. “When I got married, I was still the same person. I was still incredibly purpose-driven. I was still incredibly passionate,” she explains. “All of the issues that I cared about before I got married, I still cared about afterwards. And because my time was so limited after I had kids, I became even more focused. I think that my goals actually even grew after becoming a mom. But for what is expected of women traditionally in marriage, there's not enough space for that.”
Though it undeniably took hard work, heartache, and sacrifice to get to where she is today (Advancing Health Equity is now a booming business), Blackstock reports that she’s happier than ever and has zero regrets. “I have been able to create, through having my own company, the kind of life that I want to have. Every day that I am removed from my divorce and from leaving my academic career, the more satisfied and liberated I feel.”
Here are 4 Life Lessons from Dr. Uché Blackstock.
“You have to do the work that is important to you—the work that aligns with not only your values, but also your passions. And if you keep doing that work, you are going to be successful and you are going to be rewarded.”
“If there's something that’s really weighing heavily on you, whether at work or in a marriage, and in your heart you know it’s not a healthy situation, trust your gut. That instinct that you have? There's a reason why you have it and you need to trust it.”
“I don't feel like I wasted any time. I learned so much. I learned so much from my marriage. I learned so much from my career and academics—I learned how I want my life to be. You can't go back in time, but now I know I want to live differently. I know I want to work differently. I definitely don't consider my career or my marriage wasted time at all.”
“It's a leap of faith in yourself. I know that sounds too simple, because that leap is so scary to take, but if you take the leap and do the work that aligns with what is important to you, you really can't go wrong.”