A Doctor's Tip on Success

Too many perceive physicians to be arrogant. While some certainly are, most doctors are simply confident-a quality that is essential to success in the medical profession.

"Success is doing what you don't want to do when you don't want to do it." —Yvonne S. Thornton

All my life I’ve admired the medical profession. My physician-dad sort of insisted. Turns out it’s pretty easy. I recently had a chance to learn about an American success story—one achieved against great odds. It’s the tale of Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, and her amazing family.

Born into a poor, but proud, African American family in Long Branch, NJ (a former shore resort city where 7 US presidents summered from 1869 to 1921), Thornton was one of 6 sisters. Her dad, Donald, a World War II US Navy veteran and high school dropout, worked 2 full-time jobs for 20 years to see that his girls had a chance in life—starting with an education.

According to Yvonne, her proud working-class dad’s frequent counsel was to be a physician.

“As a doctor, no one can hurt you; no one can deny you your dignity,” he told her.

“So I learned to love the smell of a library,” she explained.

All of the sisters attended and graduated from Monmouth University (where I earned my degree in 1983). Thanks to their dad’s love and support (and frequent badgering, Yvonne says), the sisters live fruitful lives today. One has an MD, one has an MD and a PhD, one is a dentist, one is a lawyer, and another is a nurse.

In addition to education, Donald pushed his children to be active. Again, they followed his instruction. They formed a 6-member musical band, the Thornton Sisters, and traveled every weekend—even when Yvonne was in medical training—to entertain at East Coast colleges.

In 1959, they were runners-up on TV’s Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour (the precursor to today’s American Idol). They also won a big competition at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY (where Yvonne recently met President Obama).

Donald, who died in 1978, “loved to just sit at the local hospital and hear my name paged, ‘Dr. Thornton,’” Yvonne remembers. “He loved the sound of that.”

Some 15 years in the writing, her thoughtful autobiography, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters (1995), has won wide praise. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, made into a TV movie, and named a “Best Book for Young Adults” by the American Library Association. Her newest book, Something to Prove (2010), chronicles her career as a doctor and a mother.

A 1973 graduate of Columbia University School for Physicians and Surgeons, today Yvonne is senior perinatologist in the OB/GYN Department at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center and Clinical Professor of OB/GYN at New York Medical College. She also holds a master’s degree in public health.

“Always keep learning” is her motto. She and her husband of 30-plus years, Shearwood McClelland, MD (an orthopedic surgeon), have 2 children, both of whom are pursuing medical careers.

My impression of Yvonne is that she has great intelligence, energy, and confidence. Being the son and grandson of physicians, I believe that’s the thing most people don’t understand about physicians. Too many perceive them to be arrogant. While some certainly are, I look at most doctors and see confidence—a quality, I’ve learned, is essential to success in the medical profession.