Musical Surgeon Beats Odds, Heads to Top Cancer Center
Wednesday, February 26, 2016
As Vivian Jolley Bea, M.D., finishes her surgical residency at the Medical University of South Carolina and learns she is accepted into M.D. Anderson’s breast surgical oncology fellowship, she marvels at how this feat – being accepted into a program at the No. 1 cancer center in the country – came to fruition. One thing she knows: This accomplishment did not come without sacrifice.
Her family is large – she is the middle of seven children. Money was tight, and there weren’t always a lot of “extras” for them. But there was one constant in her home – the sound of music. “Music was the focal point of our family life,” Bea recalls. “My dad was a jazz musician who played in clubs when I was little and later became an evangelist. One thing was for sure – there was always music in the house.”
This was a good thing, because growing up in a deteriorated section in the northwest corridor of Washington, D.C., wasn’t always easy.
“The schools where I lived were not the best,” Bea says. Her mom took advantage of an early retirement and home-schooled her children. “With my mom home-schooling us, we were kept safe and received an excellent education.
“As part of our home-schooling, we all learned a musical instrument. Our house was filled with music. My sister had a harp, I had a flute, my brothers played piano and percussion and my sister, clarinet. Not only did we have fun with music, we understood our music was a way for us to get to college. In fact, all of my brothers and sisters went to college on music or art scholarships.”
Of course, it took hard work, dedication and sacrifice. “There wasn’t time for us to hang out with our friends because we’d be practicing our music. Probably a good thing for a lot of reasons. Music definitely kept us out of trouble. A lot of kids from my neighborhood did not have the outcome that we did,” she explains.
“I feel very fortunate my parents chose to take us down the path they did,” Bea says. “After all, how many people can say they performed at the Kennedy Center when they were in high school? I was the first chair flutist in the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program at the Kennedy Center – a pretty nice accomplishment for anyone, let alone a young African-American girl from an inner-city neighborhood where the odds are definitely against you.”
After high school, she was offered a full scholarship for classical flute at the University of Miami. Bea chose Miami because she could double major in flute and pre-medicine. She aspired to become a surgeon from the age of 12 after reading Ben Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands.” The fact that Miami offered her the opportunity to not only double major but also minor in African-American Studies was a big plus once Bea decided her mission in life was to serve the underserved.
While at Miami, Bea was able to study with some of the best flutists in the country and pursue her passion to create positive change by organizing health fairs focusing on raising breast cancer awareness in underserved communities. Despite the unexpected death of her father during her sophomore year, Bea excelled at Miami, graduating cum laude and serving as the commencement speaker.
Fueled by her desire to ease health disparities, Bea chose to go to medical school at Morehouse University, whose mission is to serve those less fortunate. While at Morehouse, she continued with her passion to raise awareness for breast cancer in underserved communities. Her commitment grew after a mission trip to Nicaragua, where she participated in caring for women with advanced breast disease. She realized early on that she was in a unique position – not only was she a woman, but as a minority herself, she was able to connect with these patients in ways that others could not.
“I know as a surgeon I have a different kind of impact, just because of the color of my skin,” Bea says. “In an underserved population, I’m relatable. I speak the same language. That’s what excites me – the fact that I can make a difference that I can connect and create positive change with the hope of reducing health disparities.”
It was at MUSC, under the mentorship of Marvella Ford, Ph.D., that she dove deeper into health disparities, focusing her research on breast disease in the South Carolina Sea Island population. According to Bea, this population has a direct link to Africa, with the least bit of genetic admixtures. This gives her the chance to explore the genetics of breast disease within this population. She envisions being the person who can pull out the disparities and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Nancy DeMore, M.D., professor of surgery and BMW endowed chair in cancer research in the Division of Surgical Oncology, praises Bea as a talented surgeon. “She strives for perfection in the operating room and has a love of knowledge. She exudes enthusiasm and has a passion for disparities research and helping women with breast cancer.”
DeMore says Bea will be a wonderful example of MUSC surgical residency training for years to come, and she will thrive at M.D. Anderson.Bea says mentors have been an important influence. “Dr. Ford was a mentor to me through my years of residency. And Dr. DeMore has made such an impact on me. She instilled such confidence in me before my interviews. She believed in me and my vision. That spoke volumes, and when I went into my interviews, I exuded confidence.”
Bea says every place she has been, whether she was focusing on music or medicine, she has had mentors who have believed and invested in her. “I realize I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was once told, ‘The day you see the truth and cease to speak is the day you begin to die.’ I see the truth and am eager to speak to make a difference. M.D. Anderson will certainly give me the platform to speak to make a difference.”