In celebration of Black History Month, Mercy Health is spotlighting some of our many colleagues who are contributing to the health and safety of our patients and the communities of West Michigan.
Ashley Screws, MD
Mercy Health Saint Mary’s
Dr. Ashley Screws is originally from Detroit but has lived many places for her studies. She enjoys working at Mercy Health and loves her job. Over the years, she has had many unique experiences, including being a Hurricane Katrina refugee and spending six months before medical school to become a licensed manicurist. In this spotlight, Dr. Screws candidly shares the obstacles for many inner-city youths when it comes to choosing a career in medicine.
Question: Will you share your education and training?
Answer: For undergraduate studies, I went to Xavier University in Louisiana in New Orleans. I had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina and went to Wayne State University in Detroit for a semester until we were allowed to return for classes in New Orleans. I attended medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I did my residency and fellowship at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Q: How long have you been working at Mercy Health? What is your area of expertise?
A: I’ve worked at Mercy Health since August 2017. I am an Anesthesiologist who specializes in Regional & Acute Perioperative Pain Medicine. This includes nerve blocks for Orthopedic and General surgeries, Epidurals and Spinals. I love the family atmosphere at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, it makes coming to work easy.
Q: Positively or negatively, has your race impacted your experience as a clinical colleague?
A: No one — whether a patient or colleague — has ever been blatantly racist to me. I have noticed throughout my career that I have to overachieve in order to be seen as competent. As Stacey Abrams recently said, “Like most who are underestimated, I have learned to over perform.” Still, there are times when patients mistake me for the nurse or the janitor — anyone other than a physician.
For my undergraduate education, I attended Xavier University of Louisiana. It is a private historically Black college, and the only all Black Catholic institution. I chose this school because they are number one for placing African Americans into medical school. My plan was to have a solid path and direction for my goal of becoming a doctor.
I worked SO hard, and then only got into one medical school. It wasn’t because I didn’t have good grades, or that I wasn’t a well-rounded applicant; it was because I had horrible standardized test scores. It was at that time that I began to notice how my race and socioeconomic background began to affect my preparedness to enter medical school. I was never taught how to integrate information like they expected me to be able to on the MCAT. It was all foreign to me, despite going to one of the best high schools in the inner city. There was and continues to be a great disparity between how I was taught and how my colleagues were educated. The “standard” was for them, not me.
I thought I had escaped standardized tests once I got into medical school, but I soon learned that there are several more tests you take while studying to become a doctor. How you score on these tests determines what kind of a doctor you can become because as programs become more competitive and availability of slots is lower and lower, test scores are the only way they can differentiate applicants. If you cannot perform well on these tests, your choices will be limited. Again — the system has put me at the back of the line.
Q: What or who has been an inspiration to you during your career journey?
A: My mom tells me that, since I was young, I said I always wanted to help people…and that I wanted to be doctor. This was probably because of how I enjoyed interacting with our pediatrician. I have had several mentors along the way who have helped me perfect my techniques and influenced the way I treat my patients.
However, my greatest daily inspiration are my patients. Surgery is a very stressful life event, and I have the privilege of being able to comfort people during this time. I love being able to reduce or completely take away their surgical pain. I like putting joy back into people’s faces after they realize that everything went well as I promised. I really love my patients.
I also think about how there are many people in the African-American community that do not trust medical providers. When patients who look like me show relief when they see I am an African-American provider, I find that rewarding. Many patients will also tell me how proud they are of me — to see an African-American female physician. I am happy to make them proud and lead the way for others like me.
Q: Would you encourage others to consider a career in health care?
A: I would like anyone who is considering a career in medicine to realize that this will be a lifelong self-sacrifice.Every day we come here, we put ourselves at risk to take care of others. The sacrifice is not just by being exposed to different diseases (like COVID, for example), but even spending less time with our families because we are in the hospital, or things as small as skipping lunch to handle things for a patient. If you are not able to set your needs aside for others, medicine is not for you.
Q: How has it been different working during the pandemic?
A: This is all scary — especially for frontline workers. None of us know the ins and outs of COVID, as compared to other diseases we have treated for decades. I am exposed to COVID patients a lot. I see my family in each patient who comes in with COVID. I ask myself, What if this was my mother or father, or significant other? You can’t help but wonder, Am I taking this virus home to my family?
Medicine is a stressful career at baseline, but COVID has added a lot of extra fear and stress on everyone. I think we can’t forget that frontline workers are people too.
I got the vaccination, but I was on the fence about it. I had long conversations with colleagues and peers, and I reached out to friends who had experience with developing medicines and vaccinations. There are so many unknowns. We don’t know the long-term effects of this vaccine, but we do know some of the long-term effects that COVID can have. I weighed the risks and benefits and decided that not taking the vaccine to decrease my risk of having a severe COVID infection, would be not only unfair to my family, but my community. The distrust of medical providers among the African-American community has many roots, and one of those stems from wrongful experimentation in the past. Even being a medical doctor, I still struggle with this myself. A lot of African Americans view this “new” vaccine as an experiment they want no part in. I realized that a lot of people in my community are looking to me for the same answers I was seeking. I share what I know, and why I got the vaccine. I can only share MY truth and experience.