In 1970, Mulva Pearson, MD, then 10 years old, left her home country of Jamaica with just the clothes on her back – not even a suitcase. Her destination: the United States, where her mother had been living in search of a better job and better life for her family.
Before she left Jamaica, Dr. Pearson had dreamt of becoming a physician. Standing in seemingly endless lines for vaccinations, she would hear the wails and screams of children before her turn came, as the nurses heated needles with fire to sterilize them. “I remember thinking, ‘When I grow up, I want to invent a painless vaccine,’” she said.
Once in the United States, where she lived primarily in low-income communities, her interests steered her toward family medicine. Seeing her neighbors battle conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, but unable to afford costly specialists, she set her sights on becoming “the type of doctor where I could serve as a mediator between the specialist and patient, explaining the patient’s unique financial, personal and cultural conditions, and help find them low- or no-cost health care.”
Now senior physician and medical director for the Community Medical Center of Orlando in Florida, Dr. Pearson has committed her career to serving the poor and the uninsured, a majority of which are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. In dedicating her life to increasing access and eliminating disparity in medicine, Dr. Pearson said she feels that being a woman and a minority has fueled her desire to serve all people, regardless of race, sex, economic status, religion or any diverse presentation.
It was this dedication that helped Dr. Pearson become the second recipient of the AMA Recognition of Excellence in Eliminating Health Disparities, which was created to highlight the contributions of individual physicians’ activities toward the elimination of health disparities.
“Do you know how many times my college advisors said to me, ‘Be realistic. Look around. Do you see any other black female physicians? Be a nurse,’” Dr. Pearson recalled. But her intense faith persuaded her to pursue her dream – a dream she believes has come to fruition in large part due to her ability to relate to patients of ethnic and racial minorities.
“It is so important to have doctors that patients can identify with,” Dr. Pearson said. “The patient is able to open up, the information flows and it promotes better health care. That’s why the patient-doctor relationship is so important.”
For example, Dr. Pearson said, that relationship is important when patients are describing pain. “The patient must be able to share the quality and intensity of their pain, for without the diagnosis, the disease continues. A doctor who is from a similar life experience, culture or ethnicity can relate better. Pain a Jamaican will tolerate is different than pain an American will tolerate, [be they] black or white. Jamaicans take herbs and drink teas to fight their disease. Americans are so used to taking aspirin.”
Understanding such intricacies are made more difficult, Dr. Pearson said, by managed care organizations, which often limit the amount of time a physician has with a patient.
To diversity in the physician community, Dr. Pearson has mentored African-American physicians and founded a program called Community Spirit, Fitness and Wellness, which meets at a local library every weekend and is dedicated to encouraging young people, ages 4 through 22, that “they can be anything they want to be,” she said.