The Prescription for Community Health

By Mary K. Zajac

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Aletha Maybank ’96 says she often receives emails like the recent one from a graduate student at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“You are a role model and a light in the darkness when I am feeling down or feel that I don’t have the capability of making it,” the student wrote. “I really appreciate you and the example you have made for upcoming professionals, especially black women.”

Maybank, an assistant health commissioner in New York City, who is a pediatrician by training but mostly works in the space of her second residency training as a preventive/public health physician, is a reluctant—though flattered—role model. “I did not set out in life to be an inspiration,” she says. “But I am always thankful and recognize my responsibility [to respond with encouragement].”

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Aletha Maybank       [Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu]

 

“I think they see a woman of color who looks like them, in a place that’s more public, and seems to be successful and living out a particular area of her passion,” she muses. “I’m doing what they want to do.”

In her position as assistant health commissioner, Maybank oversees a bureau called the District Public Health Office, which is responsible for public health issues in some of Brooklyn’s most at-risk communities, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York.

Her office’s mission: promoting health equity and reducing health inequalities for low-income families and communities of color.

Toward that end, she works to address and improve infant mortality rates and maternal health, and to promote physical activity through City Bike and other programs. She also connects with farmers markets and community grocery stores to promote healthy eating.

Maybank, who holds an MD from Temple and an MPH from Columbia University, admits that improving current health care disparities is a daunting challenge. “The reality is, if we don’t take care of those who are the sickest, it will be very hard to change overall health indicators for everyone,” says Maybank. “Resolving inequities in health will in part depend on how well we as a country resolve income, education, and employment disparities—which is hard to do. It’s just not easy to know what it is going to take to reduce the gap.”

Outside of her work as health commissioner, Maybank has addressed public health through a number of outlets including “Doctor’s Orders,” a series of columns in Ebony magazine; MSNBC’s the Melissa Harris-Perry show; as well as on ARISE America, a news program on the global channel ARISE TV. She is also a co-founder, with her friend and fellow physician Myiesha Taylor, of Artemis Medical Society, an organization that supports female physicians of color through networking, advocacy, and mentoring.

Younger audiences might recognize Maybank, however, from the We Are Doc McStuffins videos she and several colleagues made for Disney Junior. The animated series features a 5-year-old African-American girl who doctors her stuffed animals with professional aplomb. In their videos, Maybank and her colleagues demonstrate the real life future of the popular fictional character.

Maybank’s video is a sweet coincidence: She was given a doctor’s kit as a child after her mother heard her daughter announce that she wanted to be either a dancer or a cashier when she grew up.

“My mom shared with me recently that she thought she needed to suggest some other career choices in my life, so she went out immediately, got the doctor’s kit, and that is what I got for Christmas that year—at 4 years old,” Maybank recalls. “Little did she know I would enjoy it so much that it would inspire me to be a doctor.”