Originally Published in Oakland Magazine
By Erika Mailman
With palpable charm and humor, Highland Hospital’s Dr. Donna White Carey easily earns parents’ trust for that most important of jobs: their child’s health. But she’s got her eye on even stouter duties, like galvanizing the community around the disturbing statistic that in Alameda County, African-American infants die at four times the rate of Caucasian infants. The safe sleep campaign she established at Highland has been so well regarded that other hospitals, including Alta Bates, have reached out to her to possibly adopt the program.
Along the way, she’s garnered many accolades — and made some tough decisions. At Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland, she was chief medical officer, and for a year and a half at Highland, she was the first chair of the department of pediatrics — not just the first woman or first African American, but, as Carey laughs, the “first ever, ever.” Previously, pediatrics (where she was division chief), obstetrical, and gynecological services were combined as three divisions under Maternal Child Health. When OB/GYN fused, the pediatrics division became a department, with Carey as interim chair.
“I had an amazing year and a half in that role and I loved it,” she said.
She relished the position but soon learned that because state and federal funding depends on meeting metrics for immunizations and well-child visits, projects that better met the specific needs of her community had to be set aside, such as attacking the sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, issue in the county.
“When you have this disparity and death of our infants, that to me is more important … but I realize I work in a system,” she said. “I felt I was not as nimble for our patients because of those restrictions. That work was recognized, but I got a lot of pushback, because it took time away from where we get our dollars from.”
This summer, Carey was honored by the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce for being a leader in her field. Right before she was contacted by the group to be notified of the recognition, she had decided to step down from her chief position at Highland. “I was thinking it through when they called to say, ‘We want to honor you.’”
Besides her desire to be more flexible and creative in her program planning, Carey said she also believed it was time to focus on her family. “I was either at work or thinking about work all the time,” she said.
With a 12-year-old daughter entering middle school with its social and organizational challenges, Carey said, “I wanted to help her navigate through this time and into high school.” She also said she wanted to be more present for her 7-year-old son and her husband, a senior pastor at Oakland’s True Vine Ministries, where Carey is also “first lady.”
“You can absolutely have everything you want, just not at the same time,” said Carey. “You can be chair of the department, a mom, a wife, and every aspiration of your spirit can be realized, but there will be sacrifices.”
So what’s next for this Oaklander? Besides helping Highland overhaul its health records system and continuing her clinical practice, she’s now in a distance learning MBA program through Grand Canyon University. She muses over how she’ll put that degree to work, perhaps in creating a “health center or an institute or a think tank to impact health at a community level.”
Whatever she does, it’s sure to help area children — her own included.