Heartbeat of Determination: Dr. Mary Branch’s Journey to Cardiovascular Excellence

In the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, a fourth-generation African American physician, Dr. Mary Branch, emerged with a passion for service that would shape her remarkable journey. Born in the city of resilience and raised in Youngstown, her path to becoming a cardiologist is nothing short of inspiring. Leaving home at the tender age of 14 to attend a prestigious New England prep school, Dr. Branch was determined to unearth her unique gift and purpose in life. Her educational voyage led her to impressive milestones — earning her MD from the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, undergoing residency training at esteemed institutions like the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A dedicated pursuit of cardiovascular health propelled her to make history as the first African American female in the Cardiovascular Disease fellowship at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

However, Dr. Branch’s journey was not without its challenges, navigating setbacks during her research and medical school journey with unwavering faith in her calling. Join us as we delve into the heartbeat of determination — the journey of Dr. Mary Branch — a cardiologist with a relentless pursuit of excellence in cardiovascular care.

Can you share your journey of becoming a cardiologist and what inspired you to pursue this field?

Dr. Branch- I would like to direct you to my TedX talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdSa3lRs0Fs

Briefly, I am privileged to be a fourth generation African American physician. My mother is an infectious disease specialist and aided with my strategy. I considered other professions, but this was the most stable with people that I admired. I followed one of my mother’s colleagues around to learn about different specialties (shadowing). I shadowed a cardiologist and we had the best day (learning, doing different things-it was versatile, and we laughed). It was the professional form of love for me I guess. I was hooked in 2005 after 1 week of shadowing him and have been on this road ever since (almost 20 years, wow).

As a woman in a predominantly male-dominated field, what challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Dr. Branch: It is a challenge. The males in my field don’t understand the female experience. It is especially hard in this role as a cardiologist. For one, it is hard to get equity as it relates to many things. They are more well received and others are more likely to trust what they say; and others think they are smart from the beginning. They would have to prove the alternative. For me, they assume I know less. This was more of an issue with the attending supervisors I worked with. It was always an uphill battle to prove I was smart. In training as a woman, there was minimal room for error, as a Black woman, there was no room at all. But error is how you learn. It took everything to try and stay “perfect” and actually learn the craft. Grace is often not extended.

How do you think your unique perspective as a Black woman has influenced your approach to patient care?

Dr. Branch: I can extend grace and have true empathy. I walk in their shoes at least to some extent; certainly more so than my male colleagues and non-Black colleagues. I’m more understanding. I think this helps with patient compliance and improved health. There’s more trust there.

Are there any specific cardiovascular issues that disproportionately affect the Black community, and what steps can be taken to address these disparities?

Dr. Branch: Yes, hypertension. I would start with getting a blood pressure cuff (Omron is a good brand). It is really important to know your status ( blood pressure status). Keep a log for two weeks. Measure at the same time each day, after 5 minutes of rest. Keep your feet flat on the ground. Bring that log to your primary care doctor. The goal is on average < 130/90 mmHg.

In your opinion, what are some key lifestyle changes that individuals can make to improve their heart health?

Dr. Branch: Start small. Start with 1,000 steps per day and aim to increase this. Physical activity and diet trackers are the best way to go. For changing your diet, start with eating half of what you eat now each meal. You will lose weight and save money. Then aim to substitute foods high in sugar, high in salt, simple carbs, with lean meats, vegetables, and aim towards a diet closer to the Mediterranean diet. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1800389

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Tammy Reese

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