Tillman Scholar Voices: Understanding the Intersection of Medicine and Race with Adrienne Kambouris

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 07/30/2020

“There are so many reasons why there are racial health disparities, and it’s not simply because the Black people are more unhappy than the rest of America. It’s because of the specific issue that’s been built over history, and it’s something that we need to look at as a community and figure out how to fix it.”

Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Adrienne Kambouris and her work in medicine and fighting for equitable treatment and access for all.

2014 Tillman Scholar Adrienne Kambouris spent 10 years in the service and now is on the journey to her next career by completing an M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. As an officer, student, professional and mother, she has been a leader in all the communities of which she’s been a part.

Early Aspirations in Medicine

Adrienne’s obsession with studying medicine and a physician started as a child growing up in Baltimore, where since the age of eight, she knew her path.

“When I was little you couldn’t catch me without a book. I was always reading. I was a little nerdy girl with thick glasses with the book in her hand,” she said. “I read Gifted Hands and I was in love with seeing a Black man who grew up in a lower income family that grew to become a world renowned neurosurgeon, and then on top of that completed groundbreaking surgery. So from there, I always wanted to be a doctor.”

On her path to medicine, Adrienne joined the military.  At seventeen, she joined the Army to create opportunities for herself in an environment where paying for college and navigating the process was difficult.

On her experience in the military, she said, “You take this quiet meek, very introverted girl and put a uniform on her and tell her to go fire a rifle, and I remember showing up at basic training shaking like a leaf. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know anyone that served in the military. I just knew what I saw on TV, and I loved it.”

Life after the Service

In her time in the Army, Adrienne thrived, becoming a sergeant and spending 10 years engaging in leadership challenges and deployments.

“I loved leading and mentoring soldiers, and over time, I developed into a person who felt like, given time, I could accomplish anything,” she said. “And with that mindset, I went back to college in 2013.”

It took awhile for her to adjust to her new life as a civilian and student, her roles in both worlds, for a time, at odds with each other. She focused on taking time to figure out who she was an individual when she wasn’t Staff Sgt. Kambouris.

The transition was made even more difficult in balancing her life as a mother. The regimented life of the Army giving way to a mix of school, family and her personal drive to succeed.

“I was the only one leaving class to go home and breastfeed her son,” she said, “and I had to take a lot of things into consideration, like my kids’ gymnastics and ballet schedules, when it came time to scheduling my time. But I also knew that I was a double major in cellular molecular biology and chemistry and I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, so I also had to make sure that I focused all of that energy — that I knew that I had — into managing my life, so I can be an outstanding student, but also take care of my family.”

Adrienne went on to thrive, moving quickly through her undergraduate education, impressing her peers and colleagues as she excelled, just as she had in the military.

“My career counselors and my pre-med advisors, would always say ‘You are hyper-focused, you are so motivated, and you are so driven and you have a plan.’ And I said ‘I don’t have time. I’ve already spent ten years of my life doing a whole career. This is step one to work toward career two, and I have multiple other steps to get to — this is just the bottom floor. So whatever I need to do to get this step accomplished as quickly as possible, that’s what I’m going to do,’” she said. “I used a lot of the skills that I learned in the Army to get me through undergrad and help me apply to medical school and get accepted into the program that I’m in, but it was definitely a transition.”

The Intersection of Medicine and Race

Adrienne’s currently in her fifth year of an M.D. / Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland. Her work there constantly has her exploring the complexities of race in the medical field and how for generations the medical field has systematically failed Black Americans.

“There are so many ways that we in the medical community have alienated the Black community,” she said. “It goes all the way back to slavery and Dr. Sims, and his research on Betsy, Lucy and Anarcha. He literally is the father of gynecology. He has statues of himself all over the United States, but his notoriety was based off of the work he performed on slaves, against their will, and we’ve perpetuated these things all the way up to today.”

These failures don’t end with a dark history of medical exploitation. They continue today in how Black patients are diagnosed and treated.

“I just saw a study today on how we diagnose patients with renal failure, and the formula that we use is — there’s a corrective index, if you’re African American. Which means that you would be less likely to be diagnosed as having renal failure, less likely to be put on a list for a kidney transplant, if you’re African American as opposed to any other race.”

For Adrienne, she clearly sees the ways in which these issues span representation, compensation, and research; the combination of these factors leading to a rift that continues to grow in the time of COVID-19.

“Less than 3 percent of doctors are African American, even though we make up 13 percent of our country’s population. We can’t be what we can’t see,” she said. “There’s general mistrust between the Black community and the medical community, which is based off of centuries of interactions.”

The Hope for Tomorrow

Despite the systemic problems in America, in the medical field and beyond, Adrienne sees a true opportunity to embrace the current historic movement to make lasting and profound change.

“I’m an American. My family has lived in America for generations. We’ve traced our lineage all the way back to the early 1800s in Virginia. We have never known anything else. We have grown up with this country, just like everyone else that’s lived here — I honestly love America,” she said. “I’ve lived in other countries. I would not want to live anywhere else, but that sentiment doesn’t mean that I can’t want better for America.”

According to Adrienne, progress starts with the interpersonal, the work of connecting people to each other and validating experience, regardless of their position, power or profession.

Her experience in the Army has given her hope that, despite differences in opinion and experience, we can come together to create a way forward for all. By connecting to other experiences and stories, America has an opportunity to build forward better.

“We can be the great country that we think we are in our minds, but we have a lot of things to address and a lot of things to fix before we can be that great country. That doesn’t mean I love it any less, it doesn’t mean that I regret my service, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go back and serve if I needed to,” she said. “It means that you love something if you want what’s best for it. And, in this moment right now, we want what’s best for our country, as a whole, and for all of its citizens — not just some.”