As director of the DeKalb County Board of Health in Georgia, Dr. Sandra Ford holds the awesome responsibility of managing one of the largest county health agencies in the state. Dr. Ford’s education includes undergraduate studies at Stanford University and graduate degrees from Howard University. Rolling out spoke with Dr. Ford about her career choice and the issues confronting DeKalb County.
You did your undergrad at Stanford and attended Howard University for graduate school. What made you choose an HBCU?
It was very deliberate. In fact, it became a big family battle, my mother literally stopped speaking to me for awhile. Because I was in the middle of the application process and I had applied to mostly California medical schools. I decided to check out Howard since a really good friend of mine was attending Howard and seemed happy. So I went to the graduate interview kind of on a “humbug” and I loved DC and I had family there also and they encouraged to come on down. I would have a support system that I really didn’t have at Stanford. I liked the excitement of being right in the city. Howard accepted me so quickly that I literally withdrew all my other applications and my mother lost her mind.
I was such a “have not” at Stanford. For example, when I was there, there was a Black female student who received Phi Beta Kappa and we were all happy for her, but she came from the privileged side. She was able to reach that goal because she wasn’t working two jobs like the rest of us. If we had an extra four hours a day to study, we would have all been Phi Beta Kappa. I was tired of being in an environment where it seemed like you are always struggling, that’s not to say we didn’t struggle at Howard, but it was a different kind of struggle. It was a much more nurturing environment.
Did you pledge a sorority at Howard University?
No, I pledged at Stanford University. My line was the first line of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Stanford University.
How did you become involved in public health?
I sort of fell into public health. I was at Howard practicing pediatrics and working in the emergency room. But at the same time, I had my MBA. Because I didn’t understand anything about managed care. So once I got my MBA it was like learning a new language. I really wanted to run Howard University Hospital. But I was the only bilingual pediatrician and the only bilingual ER doctor. So I was a “cash-cow” for them, so they were really trying to pull me out of that and move me to a C-suite. I became frustrated because I had all this great knowledge I wanted to share and nobody wanted to hear it. I then began looking for other positions, but physicians don’t know how to apply for jobs, that’s not something we generally do. So I started sending random emails to folks and it just so happened that one of my residents/trainees had a prominent family in the public health field. So he encouraged me to send a letter to his relatives and I was contacted. In January of 2002, I was called to come to Florida for an interview that I was not expecting and I moved from Washington, D.C., in the winter to Florida.
So public health is like pediatrics on steroids instead of dealing with 2-3,000 patients you are dealing with issues of health that have national reach. I think that legislators need to have the voice of people that didn’t come from privilege but are educated to get the ear of attention. It’s not necessarily malice but they just do not think like we do. Because they do not come from where we come from, their ways of getting things done are counterintuitive to how poor folks operate. For example, they may say “We will cut children’s health care funding because we know that the citizens will rise up and protest.” That’s not the case, the poor citizen will just go to the ER and now the cost is three times as high. But they don’t get that and we don’t know who our legislators are, we are in survival mode. We don’t calm down and start writing letters.