Science and Tech


Meet Chicago’s Only Black Female Transplant Surgeon

Transplant program founder Dr. Dinee Simpson battles higher rates of liver, kidney disease among Black Americans.
Posted at 1:56 PM, Feb 11, 2021

"It's pretty common to be the only, the only black and female individual and in surgery, oftentimes the only female, you know. So when you put it all together, you know, there's there's very few people like me, so I'm used to that."

"My name is Dinee Simpson. I am a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Med. I do liver and kidney transplants."

If you were to look at health problems in the U.S, you're almost guaranteed to find Black people disproportionately face health inequity.  Black patients suffer from kidney failure at three times the rate of whites. They make up 35 percent of all patients receiving dialysis for kidney failure, despite making up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The stats go on. Black men are 60 percent more likely to have liver cancer or inflammatory bowel disease than non-Hispanic white men. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from it.

One person alone can’t tackle a behemoth problem like systemic racism in health care. But Dr. Dinee Simpson is doing more than her part.  She’s the only female, Black transplant surgeon in Illinois. She’s one of 16 in the country.  

"I think about it all the time. I think about it both from what I observe when I watch my patients try to navigate their, you know, process, there are medical diagnoses. I think about it as I drive through this city and see the stark divide the neighborhoods that are historically black, you know, lack so much and resources. I think about how I navigated health care before I came into medicine and how my family continues to navigate health care," she said.

Understanding a patient’s cultural background, religion, food preferences and availability, and medical mistrust are just part of the picture Simpson is up against every day. 

In 2019 Simpson founded the African American Transplant Access Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University. The goal of the program, simple: help this population get care that's equal to everyone else around them. The steps to that goal are much harder. Simpson says it took convincing there was as big of a problem, and how many barriers were in place.  

"There are other reasons that are much more at play than genetics. And, you know, that's things like living in a food desert. Having to travel far outside your immediate area to find a specialist, black patients are less likely to be referred to specialists when they need one."

To date, more than 50 patients have benefited from the African American Transplant Access Program. Patients like Glory Jackson, who says she hesitant of transplant at first. 

"The program was very educational. Yes, it helped me a lot. I was happy to see that there were African American doctors, especially in this field, when so many outsiders really don't know about liver transplants, especially the African American community."

Over the summer, Shara Humphrey’s mother needed a new kidney.

"I donated a kidney to my mother. July 6, 2020. The program was amazing for both of us. They still keep up with my mom. So it is just like, they are just here for us," she said.

"We're finally starting to feel comfortable with having this conversation. We shouldn't be colorblind, as people say, we shouldn't treat people differently. But we need to see the differences and understand the differences in complexion, the differences in opportunities and resources. And then thereby you can even this playing field and allow people to get the health care that they need," Simpson said.

Simpson has advised other hospitals to create maternal or heart transplant programs specifically for Black patients. The work for health equity that isn’t just a calling for her, it’s giving others the shot they deserve.

"At risk of sounding cheesy. I'll quote one of my dad's favorite movies: 'If you build it, they will come'. And, you know, I was afraid that we would get everything in place and the program would just sit here. But people have been waiting for something like this. That wakes me up every day."

And for that, her patients are grateful.

"It just gave me another chance at life," said Glory Jackson.