Ashley Denmark, DO, wrote her children’s book, “Olivia’s Doctor Adventures,” to give children something she didn’t have when she was a child — someone to say, “You can.”
The book is just one of her efforts to inspire minority children by showing them that someone who looks like them and who comes from the same background is capable of achieving their biggest dreams.
“It makes a difference — seeing someone who looks like you, who comes from the community,” said Dr. Denmark. “It can make achievement realistic to kids by exposing them to the possibility. I want to normalize success for them.”
Dr. Denmark grew up in Jennings, the daughter of a carpenter and child care worker. Her neighborhood had its “rough areas,” she said.
As a young girl, she made up her mind that she was going to become a doctor, like the ones who treated her for asthma and made her feel better. But kids in her neighborhood typically didn’t become doctors. And friends, neighbors, even teachers, didn’t hesitate to remind her of it.
She was a bright, motivated, “science nerd” in high school. But she remembers guidance counselors trying to scale back her dreams. They pushed her to attend a local college, warning that students from her school often floundered at big, out-of-state schools.
“But that made me want to do it more,” Dr. Denmark said.
She worked summers in the food and nutrition department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, volunteering for any job that would take her out of the basement kitchen and tray assembly area onto the patient care floors.
She also job-shadowed in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU). Watching staff care for patients just out of surgery, she realized, “I could do that.”
So, despite the guidance counselors’ advice, she applied to colleges and universities across the country and was accepted at all of them. She chose to attend Spelman College, which is known for graduating the most African-American women to have gone on to earn science, engineering and mathematics doctoral degrees.
She worked hard and earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at Spelman. But she still faced barriers on her path to practicing medicine.
She moved to Boston with just $500 in her pocket to get hands-on experience in academic research at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard University.
As a research assistant in a greenhouse, she spent her days digging in soil and learned a valuable lesson — she hated research.
Her journey continued to New Orleans, where her college sweetheart, now husband, was attending Tulane University Law School. Working as a pharmacy tech, she pondered her next move, deciding to enroll at Tulane. There, she earned her master’s degree in neuroscience.
With her husband’s encouragement, she applied to Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Virginia. The school asked if she’d be willing to be in the inaugural class at the college’s new campus in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and she agreed.
Before her classes started, she became pregnant with her first child. She began medical school and gave birth to daughter Olivia, just three weeks later. Though juggling motherhood, classes and lots of sleep deprivation, Dr. Denmark made it work, finally earning the medical degree.
After her residency and practicing family medicine in South Carolina for several years, Dr. Denmark, her husband and three children moved to St. Louis. Dr. Denmark joined BJC Medical Group and practices family medicine at the Missouri Baptist Outpatient Center on South Lindbergh Boulevard.
She feels that one key factor keeping more black women from considering a medical career is a lack of role models. Of approximately 900,000 actively licensed physicians in the U.S., only about 17,500 are black women, she said.
Support from her family and her own personality and work ethic allowed her to surmount the obstacles along her journey to becoming a doctor. But the journey was often lonely.
“I had to keep opening doors and not be afraid of where life would take me,” Dr. Denmark said. “I got used to being uncomfortable and making things happen.”
She’s already taken steps to provide encouragement and information to those considering a medical career. For children, she’s written, published and is distributing “Olivia’s Doctor Adventures.” For minority medical students, residents and physicians, she began the @diversifymedicineproject on Instagram with more than 12,000 followers to provide a positive social media platform offering encouragement, advice and a place to connect.
Dr. Denmark plans to continue and expand those efforts, eventually reaching into her old neighborhood.
“It’s important to normalize the process, normalize success,” she says. “Everyone needs to hear that they’re good enough to achieve, that they just need to keep pushing. We need to make more doctors. And I just want to make it easier for those coming behind me.”