By Damon Autry
A conversation with Dr. Michelle Albert, MD, MPH – was brief, but impactful. It revealed a warm, generous, and wondrously introspective soul.
Dr. Michelle Albert blends her medical expertise with deep empathy and foresight in ways that uncover lessons and reveal the infinite possibilities of humanity. As president of the American Heart Association, Albert is responsible for the oversight of all medical, scientific, and public health issues and related public policy.
She is a well-respected thought-leader and change-maker in cardiovascular health, particularly in the areas of prevention and health disparities. Albert is the first person to concurrently serve as president of three of the most distinguished cardiovascular medical societies: the American Heart Association; the Association of Black Cardiologists – where she was president from 2020-2022 – and is the current president of the Association of University Cardiologists.
The distinguished physician’s ascension to president of the American Heart Association is in and of itself noteworthy. She is the 86th president of the organization, but the first Black woman to hold the position. Albert believes it is important to show that access is possible for Black women and people of color to reach the highest tiers in the profession.
“I am the first [Black woman] in this role, but I fully expect not to be the last,” she said. “Being in this position helps create a pathway for others to follow. That’s important because [Black people] are needed in large numbers and at every level within medicine, not just the AHA.”
Albert’s journey to becoming one of the nation’s foremost experts in cardiology started in her native home of Guyana, a small country along the North Atlantic coast in South America.
While living with her grandparents in a poor, working class community, her grandfather one day left home to run errands. Minutes after he stepped out the front door, a neighbor called to inform the family that her grandfather had collapsed in the yard. He received medical attention but died shortly thereafter from heart disease.
“That experience was the catalyst for me to pursue medicine as a career, particularly in cardiology,” Albert said. “After my grandfather’s death, I became very interested in learning more about heart disease.”
Albert mapped her educational journey to reach her goal by delving deep into various science classes before arriving in the United States as a curious and ambitious 14-year-old.
But it was during her formative years in Guyana that she first became aware of the correlation between poverty and health disparities. Guyana is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and that early exposure to widespread economic struggle and the damaging ramifications it has on the health of vulnerable citizens compelled Albert to set a course for change in the medical field. She determined then that to become a change agent in the world.
“I remember being a little girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and imagining that someday, somewhere, I would have the opportunity to make things better for people,” she said. “Not a specific type of better, mind you, but more amorphous – just a better life, generally. I thought about that a lot back then.”
As she matriculated through school in the United States, that early mindset to protect and advance and advance the quality of life for individuals and communities matured and evolved into an illustrious medical career.
Albert received her undergraduate degree from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. She then went on to earn her medical degree from the University of Rochester, which began her journey toward spearheading the kind of improvements she often thought about as a young girl living in Guyana.
The health advancements Albert often references are holistic, and a way to view the healthcare landscape through a broader lens. It is one that captures the full breadth of the physician’s oath to “experience the joy of healing those who seek … help.”
Albert juxtaposes the dynamic of her initial appointments with Black women patients vs. initial appointments with women patients from other demographics.
“My Black women patients tend to open up to me more than others,” she said. “They don’t see many physicians who look like them and who share their life experiences. As a result, not only do my Black women patients exhibit a greater sense of comfort, but they freely share their concerns and disenchantment with the healthcare system.”
Such empowerment to Black women patients represents a foundational building block for the change that Albert speaks about. But the shortage of Black women physicians is a challenge, and it often puts Albert in spaces Black women physicians were rarely in.
The sense of exclusion and isolation that followed strengthened her desire to see greater representation in healthcare. Albert’s role as president of the American Heart Association to inspire and effect change in the industry.
The respected physician credits her role as dean of admissions at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine with enhancing her ability to mentor the next generation of doctors and grow a more diverse medical workforce.
“I see myself as a conduit for improving representation in medicine, which ultimately expands access to opportunities,” Albert said. “It’s important for Blacks to become spheres of influence in medicine. That’s a vital step as we move from this point forward.”
Dr. Albert is secure in the knowledge of who she is, where she is from, and what her calling is. She combines an exceptional sense of self-value with an equally remarkable understanding of where she fits within the larger picture. Albert has carved out a unique place — one that represents the comprehensive change she hopes to see one day; the kind of change that will soon become less celebratory because of its repetitive occurrence, and more obligatory because of the moral standard set within the industry.
Until that time, Dr. Albert will continue the work that’s needed to bring equitable healthcare to all.
Damon Autry is a Detroit based writer and communications consultant.