May 28, 2019 12:47 pm Jessica Pupillo – As a young girl living in Detroit, Ophelia Garmon-Brown, M.D., M.Div., lacked the resources that many of her colleagues had as children. What Garmon-Brown had was an abundance of faith that continues, even today, to guide her work.
"I was born and raised in the inner-city ghetto of Detroit. I had never seen an African American doctor. When I said I wanted to be a doctor at 4 years old, my mother said, 'OK, because you can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens you.' It was from our faith that she encouraged us," she said.
Two years earlier, Garmon-Brown's father had died from encephalitis.
"I knew that there was something about this God that my mom relied on that would see me through. From a little girl, I had faith. I wanted to be a doctor to save all daddies."
Garmon-Brown, now 64, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from North Carolina Central University in Durham and her medical degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. She was the first African American woman to complete a family medicine residency at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, and she's been blazing trails ever since.
In her more than 35-year career, Garmon-Brown has been a practicing physician, leader of health care systems, community volunteer and medical missionary in Kenya, Uganda and other countries.
"I was the first African American woman in many arenas in the late '70s and early '80s," said Garmon-Brown. "I just felt in so many ways that I had to keep pushing and I had to keep going … I had to keep proving. I felt that was necessary for me."
Her faith has also led her to ministry, and she earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2007. Medicine and ministry have been inseparable, Garmon-Brown said; they both call on her to serve those in need.
In 2000, Garmon-Brown co-founded the first free health clinic in Charlotte. What started as an evening clinic run by volunteers has now evolved into a fully staffed safety-net facility that offers care for the city's medically underserved.
"We started it by closing one doctor's office at 5 p.m. and opening it at 5:01 p.m. as a free clinic," she explained. "About three years ago, we were fortunate that our free clinic was designated as a federally qualified health center. To know that the free clinic would live on and people who were poor and uninsured could get coverage, it's probably the thing that gives me the greatest amount of joy."
Recently, Garmon-Brown has been building partnerships to provide health care in Charlotte ZIP codes underserved by two competing area health care providers. As senior vice president and chief community wellness and health equity executive for Novant Health, she's worked alongside her counterpart at Atrium Health to help create ONE Charlotte Health Alliance. The alliance has begun providing mental health, dental health and primary care through two mobile units in underserved areas of the city. The organization is also building multiple clinics, Garmon-Brown said.
Garmon-Brown has received numerous awards for her work. Most recently, she received The Charlotte Post Foundation's 2019 Luminary award. In 2018, she received the highest honor bestowed on civilians in the state of North Carolina: The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Just as she has provided hope and healing to so many patients, Garmon-Brown now finds herself on the receiving end of that care. She has been living the past two years with metastatic cancer.
"I don't know what God is going to do; I don't worry about it. I try to live for today," she said. She's now focused on mentoring younger physicians and leaders in health care.
"I am blessed by Novant Health and its CEO, Mr. Carl Armato, to be positioned now as a visionary and thought leader," said Garmon-Brown. "Carl has said on numerous occasions, 'Ophelia, I just want you to be you and share you with as many people as you can.'"