For more than 25 years, Dr. Yvette Miller has played an important role at the American Red Cross. As the Executive Medical Officer, she’s shaped clinical practices, and broadened the awareness and understanding of the plights that those living with sickle cell disease face, especially those in the Black community.
She is the epitome of Black excellence and an advocate for getting the Black community to become blood donors by leading critical conversations on structural racism and its impact on health outcomes.
Blackdoctor.org recently sat down with her to get to know the woman behind the red coat.
Could you take me back to your childhood days growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina? What was it like growing up?
Growing up in Winston-Salem in the ‘60s and the ’70s, was a time of great unrest because of the Civil Rights movement. It was an exciting time as a child to watch that, but growing up, under those circumstances, was concerning as well. My father was teaching at Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU, and there was student activism on that campus. My parents always impressed upon us that part of our life’s work is to give back to the community.
You’re the daughter of a nurse and physical education instructor. What about watching them made you want to pursue a career in medicine?
I loved going to school and I always enjoyed the medical shows at the time. I enjoyed watching those shows because they always intrigued me. I did a lot of reading about medicine because my mother was interested in nursing, and there were medical-related books around the house. She actually encouraged me to read and understand medicine. It was ingrained in me as a child, and I thought it would be great to follow in my mother’s footsteps. So that’s how I initially got interested in nursing.
I also learned about Dr. Charles R. Drew because the car accident he was in, was not far from Winston-Salem in Burlington, North Carolina. That accident ultimately took his life. Almost every year when we discussed important figures in the Black community during Black History Month, like Martin Luther King and Mary McCleod Bethune, we also talked about Dr. Charles R. Drew. I always greatly respected him and saw him as a role model.
You mentioned Dr. Charles R. Drew. I know you attended his university. Can you speak about your time there and how that prepared you for your career?
In medical school, we had electives, so students could elect to go abroad or go to another medical school. I knew that I wanted to go to Charles R. Drew Medical School. I was part of a program that prepares students for medical school, and that’s when I first learned about the medical school named in honor of Dr. Charles R. Drew. I did more research as a medical student and I wanted to spend time there. I did two rotations there, which honestly, were the highlight of my medical school career. I got to witness the best of the Black physicians. There were few Black physicians when I was a medical student at the University of North Carolina. But to be at a medical school where the majority of students, as well as the educators, were Black, was a phenomenal experience that I will never forget, and I still talk about it now.
You just mentioned being able to be in the presence of Black physicians. What about that experience helped prepare you in terms of breaking into a career where you know that you’re going to have to advocate for the Black community, especially when there are so many health disparities?
The medical center that was associated with the Charles R. Drew Medical School came about during the “Watts Rebellion” in Los Angeles that led to loss of life. The community demanded that a hospital be built in the community because there was not any type of significant healthcare locally. That. While I was there, the physicians talked to me about my responsibility as a new physician, which in part was to advocate for and on behalf of the Black community. I took that to heart. This has always been something at the forefront of the work that I do—then and now. There is a common saying in the Black community: “if we don’t do it, who will?” and that has always led me.
Going back to your childhood for just a little bit. I know that your father passed away from bone cancer, which also played a role in your wanting to pursue medicine and cancer research. How did this translate to you doing work with sickle cell disease?
I was initially interested in research because my father died from cancer when I was entering high school. However, I ultimately made blood banking and transfusion medicine, a branch of Pathology, my specialty. So certainly, my father’s history of cancer led me to choose pathology because I love the investigation of diseases, but I wanted to learn more about the specialty.
After I finished medical school, I wanted to do research to see if that melded with my personality. I spent an entire year at the University of North Carolina Cancer Research Center doing cancer research. What I came to understand about myself is that I am a people-oriented person. When I started my residency, I knew that I would find an area of pathology where I could uphold my responsibility to the Black community to improve health disparities and inequities. When I chose to go into blood banking and transfusion medicine, I absolutely found my life’s work.
Once you joined the American Red Cross, what was it like to know that you were going to be able to continue some of the work that Dr. Charles R. Drew started?
It has been a joy to work for the Red Cross. And a little about how I ended up at the Red Cross-At the end of the first year of my two-year fellowship in blood banking and transfusion medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the program’s director, Dr. Richard Davey, told me that he was leaving NIH to become the Chief Medical Officer of the American Red Cross. One of my childhood dreams was to