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Why I Became a Doctor: Edward Barksdale’s Story

Although Black History Month ends in February, celebrating the accomplishments and triumphs of African Americans should continue. Join us in celebrating UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital’s Division Chief, Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery, Dr. Edward Barksdale.

Edward Barksdale grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia in the 1960s – peak years of the civil rights struggle – in a city at the nexus of the movement. It was in Lynchburg that early non-violent black civil rights protests spurred the nationwide lunch counter sit-in movement.

Edward’s parents – Edward Barksdale Sr. and his wife Georgia – were two of the four co-defendants in the integration of the Lynchburg public schools, on behalf of his sister Lynda Woodruff. “Social service and social justice were the backdrop of my family life,” he says. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once honored them with a visit to their home.

As a child and teenager, Edward was already dreaming big. After all, this was also the era of the moon landing. He leaned toward becoming an astronaut, but realized that his pursuit of medicine was a way to combine social service and justice with his innate interest in biology.

“Neither of my parents went to college, and all around me there were external images that boys like me didn’t matter,” Dr. Barksdale recalls. “But my grandmother always said, ‘Just try to matter.’

Looking back, he says, “Although I lived in a world of black and white I dreamed in color.”

And he had what it took to forge ahead.

“My head was science, and my heart was social justice,” he says. “Medicine specifically came from what I saw going on in the world via the television.”

His parents imbued him with the sense for excellence – in all endeavors, not just academics. He was on the tennis team in high school that won three state championships, and an All-American fencer as an undergraduate at Yale University. He moved to Harvard to get his medical degree, and did his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I didn’t know I’d become a surgeon, but it embodied for me my desire to pursue mastery, by combining your dreams and talent in a repetitive way in its pursuit,” he says. “And pediatric surgery was the care of not only children but of parents. When a child is sick, a mother is sicker.”

So he makes sure that family members are provided with the information they need and want – and support, too.

A typical day for Dr. Barksdale at UH Rainbow “is long, and really, really good. I spend my days trying to be better for others, for patients. I help people, and train people to help others.”

Those who have worked with him cite his warmth, his charm, his humble nature. His words of guidance to those he teaches or mentors encourage perseverance.

Dr. Barksdale is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Medical School. He is Division Chief of Pediatric Surgery at UH Cleveland Medical Center; Vice Chairman, Department of Pediatric Surgery, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital; Division Chief, Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital; Professor, Surgery, CWRU School of Medicine #UHProud #BlackHistoryMonth #WhyIBecameaDoctor

Written by Evelyn Theiss, Sr Communications Strategist, University Hospitals. Interview conducted by Elizabeth Martin, Senior Social Media Strategist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s.