Growing up in Texas, Daun’Lee Warren had a growing interest in becoming a doctor but hadn't seen many Black physicians. She recalls one day asking her father if he knew of any Black women who'd made an impact in the medical field.
Her father — a railroad conductor at the time — told her about about Alexa Canaday, the first African-American woman to become a neurosurgeon, and Rebecca Crumpler, the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
“You can be whatever you put your mind to,” the father told his daughter.
For Warren, now a first-year pediatric resident at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV , those words always stuck with her.
“I am so fortunate to have my father, who has read history outside school and shared what he knew,” she says. “Most American textbooks talk a little about slavery, and then maybe Martin Luther King and (President Barack) Obama, and that’s it. The contributions of Black people are important to all Americans, because learning about each other provides perspective, understanding, and makes us all better.”
This February marks 47 years after President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month and called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” It was nearly 100 years ago that Dr. Carter Woodson, a Harvard educated African American, created the precursor to Black History Month with Negro History Week, a celebration of heroic Black figures that included James McCune Smith, who in 1837 became the first African American to hold a medical degree in the U.S.
“Black history is American history,” Warren says.
Black History Month continues to be important for several reasons, she says, including providing positive real-life examples of what African Americans, who continue to work to overcome systemic racism, can become. She says if Black history inspires other minority youths to go into medicine or other fields they might not otherwise attempt, it is performing as history should. History is as much about today as it is about the past, she says, adding that she’ll be proud if she can inspire others through her work in medicine. Unfortunately, the young physician points out that the field of medicine hasn’t been immune to having the contributions of African Americans ignored.
For example, while some K-12 textbooks do point out that Dr. Charles Drew, an African American, pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. during World War II, few note it was Dr. Jane Wright, an African American, who elevated chemotherapy during the mid 20th century from a last resort for cancer patients to a viable treatment option. Or that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a Black man, performed the first open heart surgery in the U.S. in 1893.
Ignorance of Black history by her 8th grade teacher at a Christian school in San Antonio placed Warren, who now wins plaudits as a physician from the director of the medical school’s pediatric residency program, in a difficult situation.
“We were studying the Civil War. I was the only Black student in the class, and the teacher wanted me to talk about the positive aspects of slavery. I said I couldn’t think of anything positive about being enslaved," she says, noting the physical and sexual violence against enslaved people. "The teacher said I had to remember that Blacks did learn the Christian religion through slavery, and that was very positive. To me, that didn’t overcome the way Black women were treated and I refused to do the assignment, saying it was inappropriate.”
Her father came to the school and backed his daughter’s position. The assignment was dropped after he, too, called the assignment “inappropriate,” a position the school’s leadership backed.
Dr. Oriaku A. Kas-Osoka, program director for the pediatric residency program at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, says Warren has grown into a young physician who stands up for the best in pediatrics, advocating for patients and their families while always working to learn something new. “Her patients and families love her, the way she cares, how upbeat she is.”
Warren’s parents divorced when Warren was still a young girl. Her mother, an attorney, left home, leaving the parenting to Warren’s dad. Her father retired early from the railroad because of a disability. She has come to regard him not only as a father, but also as a best friend who has been all about telling her the truth about life as he sees it. “The divorce wasn’t easy. I joke that we went from riches to rags.”
She worked her way through high school and college as an administrative assistant to an optometrist and in customer relations for the Marriott Hotel chain.
Though believing while in college that she would go to medical school, Warren said she also wanted to know more about the business models accompanying medicine. Over a nine-year period, 2009-18, she received a bachelor’s degree in science from Incarnate World, master’s degrees in management and business administration from Davenport University, and a medical degree from the Avalon University School of Medicine.
“So many decisions regarding patient health care are made before a patient even walks into a room,” she says. “I wanted to be able to help my patients not only in the clinic, but by also advocating for them in the boardroom.”
Only eight months into her three-year residency, Warren has learned that the reading of history isn’t the only way to learn about the early Black contributions to medicine in Nevada. Her colleagues at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine include: Dr. Joseph Thornton, an associate professor who was not just the first Black fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada, but the first fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada period; Dr. Charles St. Hill, an associate professor and long one of only three fellowship-trained surgical oncologists in Nevada and now the first African American to hold the chair of surgery at a Nevada medical school; and Dr. Beverly Neyland, a professor the first black pediatrician in the state who went on to become the chief of pediatrics at Sunrise and UMC hospitals and a member of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners.
“I’ve already been able to learn a lot from Dr. Neyland in pediatrics,” she says, including the importance of clear communication between physician and patient.
As Warren, who stresses she wants to be known as a fine pediatrician, not a fine Black pediatrician, looks to the future, she wants to do all she can to erase the difficulty with access to appropriate care in the country, a phenomenon that remains prevalent in communities of color.
“It is sad and infuriating that in a country with so many resources there are people here who still can’t receive the proper care. I wanted to pick a medical specialty where I could advocate for a population that couldn't possibly do it for themselves… One can sit back and sulk or figure out a way to be part of the change.”