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For my father, Donald Thornton, on Father’s Day

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Dear Daddy,

You know how much I relied on your guidance as I was growing up. But I wonder what you’d think if you knew that, even now, more than 26 years after we lost you to a stroke on a snowy February day, your wisdom still guides me.

I know you regretted dropping out of school as a young man and, although you seemed content to work 16 hours a day, it must have hurt not to have the opportunity to better yourself.

I know you wanted better for us, your children.

We may have grumbled when we were kids because you demanded so much. You insisted we get the highest grades in our classes. An A wasn’t good enough for you. You expected every grade to be an A+. We had to reach so high that nobody could yank us back down.

People laughed when you told them your five girls were going to grow up to be doctors. Impossible, they said.

And yet, as the first African-American woman to be board-certified in maternal-fetal medicine (high-risk obstetrics), I’m living proof that your dreams weren’t impossible after all.

Your dreams and your demands for us to do our best are the reasons why, among your five daughters, two are now physicians, one, an oral surgeon and another grew up to be a lawyer.

But I owe you for more than my career in medicine, Daddy. There isn’t a problem that I come across in life where I don’t ask myself, what would Daddy do? There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of you. There will never be a time when I will stop missing you.

Even though, I know, you’re very much with me. Even now. Happy Father’s Day.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

A letter from a reader that touched my heart

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I usually blog about women’s health but I wanted to depart a bit from that today because of a letter that a young woman named Jacinta sent me.

Jacinta read my memoir, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, and found in the story the encouragement she needed to become a doctor herself. But let me allow her to tell it in her own words:

“I am 19 years old. I just finished reading your book and it truly inspired me. I want to work with children in the medical field and reading about the obstacles that you overcame to work in the medical field really encouraged me to work harder to accomplish my dream. The thing that really encouraged me was at the end of the book when you and your sisters were sitting around reminiscing about the things that your dad had taught you down through the years … ‘Daddy was the bow, we were the arrows and he aimed high. He didn’t say midwives, he said doctors. He didn’t say dental assistants, he said dentist.’ He always encouraged you all to be leaders and to be the best at whatever you did. That really stuck with me when I read it.

“I can be a leader. I love kids and I always knew that I wanted to work with them, but I never really decided how I wanted to work with them. So I decided that I would either be an obstetrician or a pediatrician.

“… I watched your interview on C-SPAN and I remember you saying that your father told you that the only person that can stop you is you. Well I’m not going to let me stop me so I decided to work towards all my dreams.”

As those who have already read The Ditchdigger’s Daughters know, my father was a blue collar laborer and my mother cleaned houses for a living. But they were determined to see their five daughters do better. They insisted that we work hard, get as much education as we could, and aim for the top. My father had a dream that we would all become doctors. Two of us are physicians now, one is an oral surgeon, another became a lawyer with a Ph.D.,  and one, a court reporter.

I want to take this opportunity to speak to all those like Jacinta, whose families may not have all the advantages. You can make a better life for yourself. If my sisters and I could do it, you can do it. Believe in yourself and be willing to work harder than you ever imagined possible. Then, work harder still. Stay in school, study like your life depends on it (because, in a way, it does), and don’t let anything hold you back, especially not your own negative notions about the limits placed on you from the outside.

And I want to say thank you to Jacinta. Knowing that my book touched you means so much to me.

It’s letters like yours that have inspired me to begin working on a new memoir that picks up where The Ditchdigger’s Daughters left off. I hope that this book, too, will persuade readers to reach higher, study harder, and pursue their dreams.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH