COVID-19 has truly magnified what I already knew was out there. To see how this has ravaged our community and our world has been life-changing. What can I, as a Black woman physician from rural Alabama, do to help my people?
–Zanthia Wiley, infectious diseases researcher
Long before she became interested in science, Zanthia Wiley wanted to help others.
For this physician and researcher who specializes in infectious diseases, science has never been about the lab. It's always been about people. It’s a way to bridge the gap between current reality and her deep-rooted belief that everyone deserves to be treated equitably.
The only doctor in her family, Wiley was raised in a small town in Alabama by a single mom and grandparents who inspired in her an almost missionary zeal to look out for those around her. Not surprisingly, then, her first major research project in this pandemic centers on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on certain communities. Why, for instance, are under represented minorities dying at twice the rate of other groups?
Watch the video and then read the Q&A to see what keeps Wiley up at night, how she dispels vaccine myths and how her research aligns with her deepest personal aspirations.
Tell us a bit about your research.
As a hospital-based, infectious diseases doctor, I became interested in the patients being admitted with COVID-19. What zip codes are they living in? What factors increase the likelihood of their contracting the virus? And which of these patients subsequently return to the hospital within a set period of time? My primary research now is trying to describe some of the factors that may increase the likelihood of Blacks and Hispanics contracting COVID-19 and the factors that contribute to their re-hospitalization.
I am working with my research colleagues to address these disparities and it’s a big collaborative effort with over 30 individuals from Emory hospitals, the VA and Grady. We range from medical students all the way up to full tenured professors from multiple specialties.
But we want this to be more than research within the four walls of our hospitals. We are looking at what we can do in our group and in the Emory community to meet people where they are. For instance, we recognize that there are barriers for certain communities to come and receive the vaccine. Some of those barriers may be computer or internet access or transportation. There may be a language barrier for those who don’t speak English. One of the things I think is really important is bringing the vaccine to the community. I think it’s great to have central vaccine sites, but I’m looking forward to the day we have mobile vaccine units at neighborhood hubs like churches, libraries and community centers.
Zanthia Wiley says COVID-19 has put the spotlight on health disparities
What led you to focus on this particular strand of research?
On Friday, March 13, 2020, I took care of my first COVID-19 patient. She was a Black woman, in her 70s, churchgoing, married, lived with several of her family members and had adopted two younger children as well. The second patient I took care of with the coronavirus was Black. The third patient was Black.
Very early on, I noticed that these patients look like me. They look like my grandmother; they look like my aunt. The disparities in COVID-19 are very personal for me. Fighting against this disease is equivalent to fighting for my family.
Was there an incident that brought home this pandemic for you?
A few months ago, I saw a healthy Black patient in his 30s come in with COVID-19 and die within hours. He had no history of medical problems and worked every day. I investigated every COVID-19 patient that came into the hospital around the same time and saw that two people who were admitted after this young man had the same last name. Turns out that they were his parents. Just imagine both parents in the hospital, sick with this virus, and having to figure out burial arrangements for their child. My heart is heavy right now thinking about it and telling their story. COVID-19 has struck my own family but to witness the tragedy and travesty of this on a daily basis has forever changed me as a researcher and physician.
How has it impacted you as a physician and researcher?
COVID-19 has truly magnified what I already knew was out there. To see how this has ravaged our community and our world has been life-changing. The structural issues, structural racism, and structural inequities are here. But because of COVID-19, I can’t stay in the safety net of taking care of individual patients; I have to start thinking about the big picture — populations. What else can I, as a Black woman physician from rural Alabama, do to help my people?
Is that a reason why community engagement is so important for you?
I think we have to accept that there are inequities. The big question is what are we going to do about it—and what are we all going to do about it? It is time that academic communities, which are sitting right within a lot of these neighborhoods, engage with them, not just in the middle of a pandemic but even when things are going well. We need to engage with faith-based organizations and our schools so that when we’re in a really tough situation like a pandemic, and you’re going into the community to have these conversations, they know and trust you. I am doing my small part, but I am hopeful that we can all do more of it. I am looking forward to more collaborations, not just with my colleagues here at Emory but to reaching out and making those connections in the community.
Zanthia Wiley talks with a patient who is recovering from COVID-19
How do you deal with vaccine hesitancy in your patients? And the issue of equity in distribution?
Do I understand the seeds of mistrust? Absolutely. What can I do and what have I done? I went and got my vaccine. I made sure that my mother got her vaccine. I make sure that my family members are getting their vaccines. I tell my patients that. And it’s not just my patients. Sometimes it’s the lady at the grocery check-out counter. I talk via Zoom to groups organized by my pastor or other community leaders. It makes people feel comfortable to know that I took the vaccine and trusted it for my own mother and loved ones.
When I’m speaking to someone about the vaccine, I always like to start off with an open-ended question. I ask them to tell me what they think about the COVID-19 vaccine. Then you address each of their concerns and questions, one by one. Am I having the same conversation over and over, all day, every day? Yes. But if that’s what we have to do to change one person’s mind, then we’ll do that.
If Black, Native American and Hispanic communities remain largely unvaccinated because the distribution is inequitable, we are not going to benefit as a nation or globally. Just think of it as ‘community immunity.’ The more of us who get vaccinated, the better it is for all of us.
What keeps you going?
I am grateful that my grandparents and aunt survived COVID-19, but there are 500,000 human beings — sisters, preachers, children and loved ones — who did not. So that’s what motivates me on a daily basis. That’s what will keep me up after midnight and wakes me up at 5 a.m. Whatever I can do, directly or indirectly, to save another life, I’ll do it until this pandemic is over.
What has your experience at Emory been like?
I did my residency training here and never left. I was here as a hospitalist and then decided to do my infectious diseases fellowship training here. I feel like I was born and raised here at Emory.
COVID-19 onward, I anticipate more of my work to be clinical research. I’ll never let go of seeing my patients as that’s my favorite thing to do, and since residency, my focus has been direct patient care. But Emory has allowed me to make that shift. I feel like I’m appreciated and I feel like my thoughts, opinions and ideas are trusted. I can call on people to help. I have veteran professors on my research team to help guide me through this process. And, on the other hand, I have medical students — young Black women who are able to witness and see my growth and what they can do, how they can contribute to clinical research. It’s all about having great leadership and mentorship and knowing that you can reach out to your colleagues. And we all have the same goal: to get out of this pandemic and to provide the best care that we can to each other and our patients.
I’ve been really fortunate to train here at Emory, where all I saw were women leaders — from my residency program director, to my fellowship program director, to my infectious diseases division director, all women. Black women do extraordinarily well here at Emory. There are currently five Black women full professors within the Department of Medicine — I look up to each of them. I look forward to the time when we don’t have to have these conversations about whether we have enough women and underrepresented minorities on the team. It’s time to make these changes and make inclusion a foregone conclusion.
Wiley received her COVID-19 vaccine in December.
What made you opt for medicine as a career?
As a teenager, I can remember being a unit secretary at the local hospital and seeing this Black male doctor. He was the only Black doctor that I had ever seen. He was from Atlanta, and he was vibrant and respected, and he made me feel like I could do this. It never occurred to me not to consider becoming a doctor, even though no one else in my family had done so. I come from humble beginnings, a really strong family, and they instilled the importance of hard work. Not one person said you can’t do this. I believed that I could and I did.
What are your hopes for the future?
With respect to health care, I hope that if my Black uncle is admitted to a hospital and if there is a white man the same age as him also admitted, I could feel confident that they are going to receive the same health care, the same treatment, and have the same outcomes. I’m not asking for more; what we want is equal. To know that if I’m admitted to the hospital, I don’t have to worry that my treatment may be different because of the color of my skin. I hope to see that in my lifetime. I want that for our next generation.