Donna Mendes

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M.D. Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery, Columbia University, Senior Vascular Surgeon, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, New York City

Donna Mendes, M.D., is the first physician in a family who traces its roots to the Cape Verde Islands. She’s also the country’s first board-certified, African-American female vascular surgeon and nothing pleases her more than using those nimble hands to do what they do best. “I love the excitement of a ruptured aneurysm—getting control of the bleeding and putting a graft in with open surgery or with endovascular surgery to save someone’s life,” she chuckles.

Fascinated by hospitals as a child, she studied medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons and found her true calling as a surgeon during a sub-internship in surgery. Today, she is a senior attending in vascular surgery at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, serving mostly Black and Latino patients. “The patients are very pleased to walk in and see a doctor who looks like them,” she smiles.

Dr. Mendes is also an associate clinical professor of surgery at her alma mater, Columbia. Her own research focuses primarily on why peripheral arterial disease (blockages of blood vessels away from the heart) disproportionately affects African- Americans, resulting in higher levels of amputation even among patients as young as 25 years old. She attributes this to high-risk behavior such as alcohol consumption and smoking, inactive lifestyles and poor diets. “We are the product of what we eat, which eventually shows in and on the body,” she says Small wonder, then, that Dr. Mendes works out daily, either at the gym or by spending half an hour on her treadmill. She winds down by taking in a show with girlfriends or traveling to exotic places. “I work hard, so I play hard,” she says.

After 23 years as a surgeon in a male-dominated profession, she has learned to stand her ground when challenged. “I’m always open to hearing another version of my findings, but there is evidence-based reasoning and science behind most of what I do and what I say,” she declares with spirit. “I used to be shy many years ago, but after a while you realize you know more about what you’re talking about than anybody else,” she says.