Muriel Petioni, M.D., Saves Harlem Hospital From Closing
She opens the door of her sunny Harlem apartment, a wide smile
showing off high cheekbones. She’s elegant, slim, dressed in a simple
floor-length dashiki. With a laugh she continues to adjust her earrings, as she
graciously escorts a visitor to a comfortable chair, facing a wall of African
masks. Dr. Muriel Petioni, called several years ago “the mother of medicine in
Harlem,” is 93 years old. Her voice is strong, her memory infallible, her
movements fluid, her articulation flawless, her delivery frank (she likes to be
“direct, but always courteous”). At Barnard College’s commencement this month
she will receive the Barnard Medal of Distinction. There have been honors
before, there could easily be dozens more, for Dr. Petioni has been for well
over half a century a leading voice at and for Harlem Hospital, where she
served her own internship and developed a mentoring program for black women
doctors. She is still active in the Central Harlem and East Harlem community,
where she served for 30 years as a school physician for the NYC Department of
Health. She is currently the chair and founder of Friends of Harlem Hospital
Center, founded a little over 20 years ago at the hospital’s 100th Anniversary
Celebration, and where, within a decade of galas and outreach, she helped
garner support from the hospital’s “endless friends,” in and out of the
community, and put it back on the PR map. Dr. Petioni also sits on the board of
the Harlem Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and, at the urging of friends and
colleagues, is planning to commit her extraordinary life story to print. And
what a story it is.
Born in Trinidad but coming with her parents to this country
when she was five, she has always lived in Harlem. Her father was a well
revered doctor, and at age eleven, she started accompanying him on rounds,
watching him compassionately treat his patients, many of whom couldn’t afford
to pay. She came to the inevitable conclusion that she, too, would be a doctor.
He encouraged her and her two siblings to be independent. Women, then, who
aspired to be professionals typically went into teaching, nursing or law.
Muriel Petioni started college at NYU but switched in her junior year, at her
father’s suggestion, to Howard University because he wisely concluded it would
be a good move when she applied to its medical school. At that time, and for a
long time after, well into the `50s, Howard and Meharry, historically black
colleges, were the medical schools to attend, most institutions (except for
Harvard) opening up only late in the wake of affirmative action.
She loved studying, and though she speaks passionately about the
burdens faced by blacks, she recognized that at Howard and later at Harlem
Hospital, she was given an opportunity to study with first-rate medical
professionals, including the pioneering Harvard-educated surgeon, Dr. Louis T.
Wright, the first black to integrate then-white Harlem Hospital, and Dr.
Charles Drew, her teacher in pathology, who made his international mark by
developing improved techniques for blood transfusions and storage. Both men,
fervent, life-long opponents of racial segregation, were important influences
in her life. She married, a Tuskegee Airman, and for a while was a housewife
and mother, but soon returned to her practice, which included a special
interest in ob/gyn, seeing patients in the very same office her father used and
remaining there for 40 years.
She is often asked to talk
about differences between then and now—for blacks, for women, for
doctors, and she never misses a beat in answering. Until 1920, major hospitals
did not admit blacks for training; after that, quotas were set. She speaks
movingly of the “lonely and horrific” existence of lone blacks who found
themselves isolated in white universities. She, herself, had no difficulties.
It was a time when serving in a clinic was the thing to do, the way blacks in
particular got post-graduate training and really learned their profession. In
1974 she founded the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society for Women in
the greater NY area, and became an active member of the coalition of 100 Black
Women. At the center of all her interests, however, has been, and is, 123-year
old Harlem Hospital, where she served for so many years and which she continues
to champion. She knows, of course, that many of the doctors who come to the
hospital do so from India, from the University of West Indies and from some
African countries. At Harlem Hospital, they all get “a world-class education.”
She beams when she says that what was true then is still true today: “I never
once not wanted to get up and go to work.” They truly don’t make `em like
Muriel Petioni anymore!#