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Bridging the Generations: Reflections on Black Medical History in Miami

Back in 1966, James Bridges, M.D., became the first black resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital, an important milestone in Miami’s medical history. “Jackson had already integrated its nursing staff, and started putting black and white patients together on the same floor,” he said. “It was an exciting time for civil rights, and a wonderful experience for me to serve as senior resident.”

From left, Dr. Roderick King, Dr. Mark Bridges, Don Steigman, Dr. James Bridges, Dr. Judith Schaechter, and Dr. Brittany Alston.

Bridges, 83, reflected on his groundbreaking medical career in a February 23 panel discussion with his son, Mark Bridges, M.D., for Black History Month. The event, “Bridging the Generations: A Conversation with Dr. James Bridges and Dr. Mark Bridges,” was held at the Mailman Center for Child Development and hosted by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics in partnership with Medical Education and the Departments of Medicine and Public Health.

“Medical education has made tremendous strides in the past 52 years, but diversity remains a continuing challenge,” said Judy Schaechter, M.D., M.B.A., professor and chair of pediatrics, chief of service at UM/Jackson’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, and the George E. Batchelor Endowed Chair in Child Health. “We must take an active role in building a strong pipeline of minority medical students and physicians to serve our community.”

The father-son Miami physicians were interviewed by Brittany Alston, M.D., pediatric co-chief resident at Holtz Children’s Hospital, and Roderick King, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of public health sciences, assistant dean of the M.D./M.P.H program, and CEO of the Florida Institute of Health Innovation. Thanking James Bridges for his leadership through the years, King said, “Without you, many of us would not be here today,” referring to the dozens of medical students, faculty members and alumni attending the event.

After the panel discussion, Don Steigman, chief operating officer of Jackson Health System, presented James Bridges with a special award commemorating his groundbreaking role in Jackson’s 100-year history. “As our first African-American resident and the first African-American president of the Dade County Medical Association, Dr. Bridges opened the doors to many other minorities to show that they too could be successful in their careers,” he said. “Today, we are proud that Jackson’s workforce reflects the diversity of our community.”

The segregation era

Growing up in segregated Miami in the 1930s and ‘40s, James Bridges remembered blacks having to sit in the back of public buses, and seeing “white” and “colored” signs at public drinking fountains. “I would drink out of both and the water tasted just the same,” he said with a laugh.

Bridges knew he wanted to be a doctor at an early age. “My father told me that if you really want to help people, you need to be a doctor,” he said. “Throughout my career, I’ve told many young people the same thing. It’s so important for minority children to consider that path in life.”

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Bridges received a baseball scholarship to Central State College in Ohio, earning a bachelor’s degree and preparing for medical school. However, Florida’s medical schools did not accept blacks during the 1950s. Instead, the state would pay Bridges’ tuition and fees as long as he trained outside Florida and agreed to return as a family doctor.

Bridges enrolled at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and decided to specialize in obstetrics-gynecology. After earning his medical degree, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army and completed an OB/GYN residency in St. Louis, before deciding to return to Miami, which had only one black OB/GYN specialist at the time.

But Bridges faced two challenges. “The state wanted me to go into family practice in the Panhandle, and I said no,” he recalled. “So, the attorney general sued me for the medical school tuition money. My wife and I wrote them a check for $300, paid them off.”

However, Bridges didn’t have a Florida medical license, so his options were limited. “Jackson offered me a position as senior resident, and I accepted immediately,” he said. “It turned out to be a great decision because it brought me home, gave me a chance to improve my skills and work with great doctors who guided me throughout my career.”

On Bridges’ first day on the job at Jackson, he performed seven vaginal hysterectomies, and the pace never slowed down. After his residency, Bridges joined Stanley Johnson, M.D., in private practice, and later became the first black board-certified OB/GYN specialist in Florida, delivering more than 10,000 babies by the time he retired in 2001.

The next generation

Meanwhile, his son, Mark Bridges, was following his father’s advice, earning his medical degree, training as an orthopedic surgeon and building his practice in Miami Lakes, Plantation and Davie. “While there is still racism in our society, I have learned that you have to be open minded and approach each patient as an individual,” he said. “That is the opposite of prejudice.”

In terms of medical education, Bridges agreed with his father that minority students today have greater access to fellowship training than was the case in the 1960s, when black doctors were typically expected to become general practitioners.

Asked for his advice to today’s students, James Bridges said, “You have to keep learning. Every year there are new things in medicine, and if you live in the past, you’ll get buried. Go to seminars and lectures so you can get the latest information on your field.”





Tags: Black History Month, Dr. James Bridges, Dr. Judy Schaechter, Holtz Children's Hospital, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine