Receiving a life-altering medical diagnosis is difficult, but patients of Donna M. Mendes, M.D., may find that message a little easier to bear. As an African-American senior vascular surgeon at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, Dr. Mendes mirrors the race of her patients and understands the behavior that leads this population to have higher incidences of diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions that can result in circulatory problems.
Cultural competency is the key to effectively treating her patients, says Mendes. “When you’re talking to someone and the only thing you can tell them is they might loose their leg, they don’t want to hear it,” she says. “But if they have to hear it, they want to hear it from someone they trust.”
Mendes specializes in limb salvage procedures and other treatments to address peripheral vascular issues, which she says are analogous to a neglected plant. “If a plant doesn’t get enough water, it will wither,” she says. The same is true for limbs that aren’t receiving adequate blood flow. Advancements in medicine have made the care of peripheral vascular conditions easier for Mendes and her patients. “When I started in vascular surgery, we took care of an aneurysm in the abdomen by opening the patient from stem to stern,” Mendes explains. “Now we just make two incisions in the groin.”
Mendes was introduced to medicine at an early age. Growing up in Roosevelt, N.Y., she spent a great deal of time in hospital waiting rooms while her older sister received care for an ongoing illness. However, it wasn’t until she was a student at Hofstra University that she decided on medicine as a career.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, Mendes enrolled at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she was soon drawn to the fast-paced practice of cardiac and vascular surgery. At the time, these fields were dominated by white men, but this didn’t faze Mendes. “I knew that if I was able to get the same grades as anyone else, I could apply that and do whatever I wanted to do,” she says.
Upon receiving her medical degree in 1977, Mendes joined St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where she rose from intern to surgical chief resident over the next seven years. She completed a two-year fellowship in vascular surgery at Englewood Hospital, in Englewood, N.J., before returning to St. Luke’s as a senior vascular surgeon in 1984. In 1986, Mendes earned the distinction of becoming the first African-American, female board-certified vascular surgeon.
Because Mendes didn’t see people who looked like her when she was a med student, she makes a concerted effort to be a mentor. “We have to be role models to the young group coming up,” she says. In addition, she strives to impact the lives of others by serving on the board of Hofstra University. She is also a former board member of the Association of Black Cardiologists and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Through her work, Mendes hopes to pinpoint the reason why African-Americans with circulatory issues have a higher amputation rate than that of other races. But she says her greatest challenge is getting her patients to acknowledge and change the behavior that jeopardizes their health. “A doctor can make a diagnosis and guide you, but we have to assume the responsibility for our own health,” Mendes says.