Working-Class Backgrounds Propel Top Female UH Physicians to Compassionate Leadership Positions
May 11, 2021
UH Alumni News | May 2021
Ever since she was a little girl, visiting her mother at the front desk in Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Radiology Department, Dr. Carla Harwell was intrigued by physicians. These distinguished doctors made a distinct impression on this child of inner-city Cleveland.
Doctors take care of people, her mother explained. They make sick people well again. At 5, an aspiring physician was born.
“I was very intrigued by these tall white men in starched white coats making people feel better,” says Carla Harwell, MD, Medical Director of the UH Otis Moss Center in Cleveland and University Hospitals Alum '98, at a primary care practice specializing in care for the African-American community. “I was that little bright-eyed girl who developed a love for science… and I had a dream.”
Kimberly Togliatti-Trickett, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer for the West Region, (residency training at MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio) was in physical therapy school taking classes with pre-med students when she realized she could hold her own with these future physicians. Growing up in a blue-collar family, she saw doctors put on pedestals, unquestioned. She had never considered this an attainable career.
“In school, I realized I could hang with them, and I could do this,” says Dr. Togliatti-Trickett, who worked as a physical therapist throughout medical school and did a dual residency in both internal medicine and physical medicine and rehabilitation. She parlayed her experience in PT into a career as a physician specializing in PM&R. For nearly two decades, she has been a co-medical director of the Acute Rehabilitation Center at UH Parma Medical Center.
Working class backgrounds have given both women the perspective to truly connect with their patients. Yet their hurdles were higher. Neither woman had parents who had gone to college to lead the way. Dr. Trickett was the daughter of a hairdresser and a tool and die maker. While Dr. Harwell’s mother was a hospital secretary, her father, raised in a single-stop-sign town in the South, labored at three jobs: a plant foreman, a barber and a housekeeper.
Dr. Harwell still shakes her head talking about the female guidance counselor at John Hay High School who told her that she should forget being a doctor and “just be a nurse.” The comment disparaged her goal and the important role of nurses in health care delivery.
“I couldn’t survive without my nurses,” says Dr. Harwell, who graduated third out of 543 students at her all-Black high school. “It was unfair to put them at a different level – and to try to crush my lifelong dream.”
‘The Art of Medicine’
Both physicians have decades of experience improving the quality of their patients’ lives. Dr. Harwell has impacted thousands of patients as a primary care provider in the UH Otis Moss Jr. Health Center at 89th Street and Quincy Avenue, where she’s proud to note that African-Americans get the same quality care found in the suburbs. Patients realize better outcomes, satisfaction and compliance when they trust their physicians. And it helps when their doctors know their children’s names, their life milestones, even their favorite color.
“Historically, Blacks have gone to clinics and seen different providers every time,” Dr. Harwell says. “I’m a Black doctor taking care of Black patients, and there is a level of innate cultural sensitivity and understanding of my patient population that makes my patients feel comfortable. I have a gift for the art of medicine, and I can connect with people.
As a PM&R physician who has the informed perspective of a former physical therapist, Dr. Togliatti-Trickett knows education is integral to a patient’s return to optimal functional recovery. In a community hospital, she has witnessed the connection caregivers form with their patients, who may often be their neighbors or family members.
“I facilitate the patient’s management of their own health and conditions to reach their maximum quality of life,” says Dr. Togliatti-Trickett, who in two decades at UH Parma has also served as Chair of the Department of Medicine, as Chief Medical Officer and developer of the Advanced Practice Providers program. “I understand what needs to be done to optimize their function and how to guide their care, including obtaining realistic goals for the patient.”
Rising to COVID-19 Challenges
The pandemic put both physicians in important roles – one at a system level during crisis response, and one interacting daily with anxious patients as a PCP. In 2020, Dr. Togliatti-Trickett was promoted to a regional CMO position over UH Parma, Elyria, St. John and Samaritan medical centers. She regularly works with entity CMOs and their leadership teams to drive patient satisfaction and engagement, with a sharp focus on quality. When the COVID-19 crisis hit Ohio a year ago, she became part of the Unified Command crisis management structure, facilitating communication from the CMOs and medical teams at the community hospitals. She helped develop treatment manuals and processes for managing the acute care of the COVID-19 patient.
“The COVID crisis pushed us to collaborate and communicate,” says Dr. Togliatti-Trickett, who says most health care providers, while perhaps exhausted, were grateful to continue working and providing care. “People rise to challenges in general, and we made sure to take care of our patients and each other in this time. We all learned a lot, working through heartbreak, fatigue and exhaustion, and coming out better aware of our own mortality and capabilities.
“I feel blessed I am a physician to impact the lives of people who have gone through this terrible pandemic and provide care and guidance.”
Dr. Harwell is continually urging patients to get vaccinated and advocate for their own health. She has seen the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on patients of all ages and cared for those experiencing COVID-19 complications months after fighting the disease.
“I have seen the devastation, I’ve walked through the ICU and seen the patients on ventilators,” says Dr. Harwell. “I have patients coming back to me, the long-haulers who still have issues from having had COVID, facing chronic fatigue, respiratory problems, clotting issues.”
So Dr. Harwell welcomes every call from patients, young and old, who call her office wanting her advice as a trusted member of the Black community on the question of the day: Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine? To which she gives them an unequivocal yes, reminding them that she herself got the shot.
“I continually tell people, I am more afraid of COVID than the vaccine,” says Dr. Harwell. “I’ve instilled in my patients the importance of doing their part, to wear a mask and to social distance. I’ve tried to reassure my patients to hold on to hope and listen to science.