Yes, I Am the Surgeon: Lattisha Bilbrew, MD.

My next guest was the first black female orthopedic surgeon to become a partner at the largest orthopedic practice in Georgia. She understands that when you’re the only person who looks like you in your field, there’s pressure on you at all times.

Welcome back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty and I’m joined by Dr. Lattisha Latoya Bilbrew. Who is here to talk about her new book called, Yes, I Am the Surgeon: Lessons on Perseverance in a World That Tells You No. Let’s flip through it.

Hello everyone and I am super excited today because I have my friend Lattisha with me today on the show. Lattisha, how’s it going?

Lattisha Bilbrew: Everything’s going great, thanks so much for having me on.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, congratulations on your book. I’m super excited to get into it. I was zooming through it the last, I would say, twenty-four hours or so just to kind of pick up notes and I found myself resonating with so much of what you were talking about especially around the areas of just kind of feeling like you’re the only – especially when you first kind of came to America and what that was like for you, a different language, and it definitely resonated with me.

But before we get into the book, I really want people to get to know you a little bit. So we’re going to go back in time and share a little bit about that personal background and maybe share a couple of stories and what really inspired you to be on the path that you’re on now?

Lattisha Bilbrew: Absolutely. So my name is Dr. Lattisha Bilbrew and I’m an orthopedic hand surgeon but I was born in England, and people often ask, “Was I a military kid?” And I say, “No, we’re just black people from England because my parents were born there too.” My background, my heritage, is that my family is Jamaican on both sides. So, my grandparents, Jamaica was owned for say, by the UK, by the United Kingdom.

In the 1950s, they migrated, both my maternal and paternal grandparents, to England and that’s how our family got established there. So I’m this weird mix of British, Jamaican, and African-American culture and I hang on to all three, and I use all three. I lived in England until I was about eight years old and then migrated here with my mom, my dad, and my sister, first to Florida and grew up in Florida for the most part and that’s how I became an American.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s beautiful, I love that. You share a very unique story about your grandma and having to visit the hospital and what that experience was like for you, and it kind of, in a way, outlined what the future was going to be like. I feel like it shaped your thinking. Can you share a little bit about that story and how important grandma was to you?

Lattisha Bilbrew: Yes, I think that I’m really blessed to have the story happen to me at such a young age. I was four or five years old, and I remember my grandmother who was this stereotypical Jamaican grandmother. She was always ill, you know? She was always in the hospital, high blood pressure, consequences of high blood pressure. I know that now as an adult.

As a child, you just know that your grandmother, who I called Nanny, was sick and so the memory that stuck with me that really kind of carved out who I would be was, there was a time when the entire family went to the hospital and for some reason, I was left with my nanny who was sick in the hospital bed and everybody else left and I remember just kind of sitting there, talking to her and in walked, I don’t know if it was a doctor, a nurse, a healthcare provider I should say.

And they had a little thing of white pills and there was no, “Hi Ms. Simpson, how are you doing? How are we feeling today, what’s your pain level?” It was just, “Here, take this medication,” and I remember it just being very curt. There was no empathy, there was not even recognition that there’s a little girl that’s in the room. Like, “Hi, little girl,” you know? Nothing like that and my grandmother took the pills and then waited for the woman to walk off and she said, “Watch this,” and there was a little drawer next to her bedside.

She opened it up, she spat out the pills because she kept them behind her tongue and when I looked inside the drawer, it was full of little white pills. So she was not taking her medication in the hospital and you know, it’s ingrained in my mind just seeing those white pills against the wood grain and my grandmother ended up dying shortly after from complications of hypertension, all very preventable. She was very young.

It was at that moment that I knew. When my mother came back and as we walked to the parking lot I said, “I’m going to be a doctor,” and my mom was like, “Okay baby,” you know, no big deal. But I knew that I wanted to be the type of person that would embody empathy and kindness and understanding and that was the reason I knew I was going to become a physician when I grew older.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so powerful because those moments in time, in our childhood, and how they impact us and the decisions we make and all these things — because you, I feel like you just wanted to see your grandma live a little longer and be around and as you get older and you start connecting the dots and you see how almost preventable or the process could have been a lot smoother, more elegant, more human, right? I think that’s the most important part.

Which is amazing, it led you on a journey to offer that in what you would be able to do, which is beautiful. So you were the first black female orthopedic surgeon to become a partner at the largest orthopedic practice in Georgia. That is amazing. How did it feel to achieve such a significant milestone and what motivated you?

Lattisha Bilbrew: When I became that, I don’t think I realized it at the time. It was president of the company, Dr. Lundy, He was like, “You know, you’re going to be our first?” and I was like, “Oh, okay,” you know? I didn’t recognize it and when it dawns on you, number one, it’s an eye-opening of, wow, there is so much room for improvement here, there’s so much more work to be done to bring other people behind me so that we can even that playing ground.

It’s an honor that I hold but at the same time, as you know, I’m in year six going into year seven of my practice and it becomes less honorable and to me, just more that this is sad. What are we doing to change the narrative? Why are we growing exponentially but yet, there are fewer and fewer black men and women going into the field? And so for me, it’s just another mountain to climb to bring people behind me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much. You talk about this idea of how we stand on the shoulders of others and how you are now preparing your shoulders for others to stand on yours with the creation of this book and how you navigate your ways around not necessarily the success but adversity and perseverance and all the things that come around when you’re sort of always being told, “No.”

Let’s be honest, people of color in this country face certain things — and it’s not always the case, but it is the case — there’s a lot of challenging things that I know I grew up with for sure. I remember my sixth-grade ESL teacher literally telling me, “It’s too difficult to become an architect so you should do something else.” You know, I can’t blame her for that or anything. I grew from that, right?

But I went and got my architecture degree and it worked out, but at the end of the day, where we channel our energies as to how we teach is so incredibly important. However, my seventh-grade ESL teacher was remarkable. She helped me come out of ESL and those mentors, sometimes, if you have a bad day and it just kind of sits with you for years as a kid.

So those experiences do shape us, and we do remember them, but how we remember them is important. Your book offers readers a collection of psychological tools to help them persevere in the face of adversity. Can you share, maybe some personal success stories of how these tools shape or help you overcome a particular challenge or situation?

Photo by Negative Space from Pexels:

Tools for Overcoming Adversity

Lattisha Bilbrew: For me, the first tool I look at is just the tool to persevere, and for that, I pay attention to my grandparents. It’s interesting, just yesterday, I had a very humbling experience. I was leaving my private social club that’s a rooftop, which is also where my book launch party was going to be, and I was going to valet, and I see the same valet guy every time and he never remembers me. I’m at this place multiple times, and he’s always charging me extra, and I’m like, “I’m a member here.”

So eventually I was like, “Why don’t you remember me?” I was like, “Why can’t you remember me?” and I was with a friend who said, “Well, what’s his name, and what does he do?” He had a conversation with him, and he was an immigrant and he used to be a pilot in Afghanistan. He’s only been here for a few months, and he’s taking cars around, he’s valeting cars but he’s super educated and has a family.

And I said, “How humbling is that?” Because that was my grandparents that came from another country and though in Jamaica, yes, we speak English, but Patwa is a completely different dialect. Very hard to understand, especially if you’re from the country and to go to another country and all you have is a slip of paper that says “Mr. Smith” and you have one suitcase, and you’re there to start your life over and provide a life for your family.

Even me, while I was writing this book, it’s like I lost sight of that in that moment. So I’m grateful for that friend who reminded me of it, but I’m also remembering that’s the spirit of perseverance because there’s so many people that would have just given up. They would have gone back to Jamaica, gone back to the mountains. Their families may never have been educated, I wouldn’t be an orthopedic surgeon.

So that for me is one of the foundational lessons; you have to persevere, you have to find what drives you. For that valet guy, it was his family. He’s like, “I have to provide for my family.” For my grandparents, it was their family. It was the idea of a legacy. So the first lesson is find what is going to motivate you through those tough moments, and that is your lantern. That’s what’s going to guide you as you continue this rough journey, and the journey will be rough.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I relate to that heavily, you know? My family came here with nothing, from a refugee camp. So, this idea of perseverance and really putting it all on the line for the people that you love and working really hard, head down, just focused on what you have to do.

We forget that life isn’t just about us and how the world reacts to us. It’s also, who is this person? Speaking to them and getting to know them. The way they’re going to get to know you is by being able to get to know them, right? It’s that investment in one another that creates unity, that creates growth, and opportunities. I love that quote, I believe it’s Gandhi but I feel like it’s attributed to someone else now, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I love that because it’s like sometimes we want people to see us. However, it’s like reversing that. It’s just like, just started seeing people. Seeing them for who they are and then watching what happens and that it’s just reversing the energy, which is very powerful. I love that you touched on all of that.

So you achieved so much in your career as a surgeon and an author now. What are some of the moments you are most proud of? What have been the most key factors that you feel contributed to what you sort of consider success, right? Because everyone sees it differently.

Lattisha Bilbrew: For me, I think a lot of people would expect me to say, when I graduated college or I got my medical degree or finished residency, finished fellowship. But for me, my greatest moments are when I have continued when it seemed like there was no way to continue, and one of those moments is, you know, when I share the story of my first “No.”

I looked back, and I’m so proud of the way that I continued to move forward when I was in college and I admired the head of the program. I just knew that she was going to mentor me and I loved everything about her and she was the first person that told me, “I don’t think you’re going to make it to medical school and minorities tend to do better in different health fields. Consider psychology.”

So it’s not like she was like, “Oh, you can’t do any educated field,” but a lot of people would lean on that and say, “Well, you know, she’s not telling me I can’t do well in life, she’s just saying I can’t do well in this particular field,” and instead, to look at that and say, “No, I said what I said,” which is, “I’m going to go to medical school.” I contoured my way out of that, and I kind of formed my own path and persevered, you know?

I use the word over and over but it really has become a mantra for me. Those are the moments I’m proudest of; when the door is slammed, not just cracked, it’s slammed shut in my face, and I find a window to climb through.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: It’s really powerful, right? Because the ones we seek, I feel like, the most validation for them sometimes, they are the ones that challenge us the most in a very weird way. The ones that we want that support from, they do give it, you know? And not all the time but maybe it’s in their way or however we see it, however we translate it. But at the end of the day, it’s one of those things that goes, “Oh, okay, you don’t think I can do this either.”

In your mind, that[’s] kind of [a] pump. For me, it was not getting a job at Nike out of college, right? As a young architect and designer, I was super excited, right? And it just would not happen. I could not. So I went off and started my own printing and design company, and I was just like, “I’m going to prove to everybody that I can do this,” you know what I mean? “And I’m great at this.” And, of course, I was very cocky and arrogant, and business will humble you real quick, believe that. The streets of business will humble you real quick, you know?

But like that attitude and using that response as a way to fuel what you want to do. For me personally, I was able to kind of overcome those humps, if you will and then look back and be like, “Okay, that wasn’t the best approach.” But it got me over the fear. It got me over that wall, which you talk about. You talk about those fears. You talk about those things that come up, and you have a very beautiful story on, you know, how your parents taught you to view fear. Can you share that a little bit with our audience?

Conquering Fear

Lattisha Bilbrew: One thing my parents have always done is they’ve never held back from showing me the truth of myself and my environment. They’ve always been very powerful in highlighting that. Even at a young age and age appropriately. They always told me that fear is false evidence appearing real and that you can’t allow fear to be that boulder that stands in your way.

You have to find that internal fuel, that internal fire, and allow that to be the lever, to be the fulcrum that shifts you and that pushes fear out the way so that you can keep going. So, you know, whether it was me thinking about my grandmother or me thinking about the impact I can have in my community or, even at times like, “I’m going to just do this because I said I can.”

Whatever your fuel is, because your source of your fuel is going to change as you mature, as you go through the process, as you learn from your mistakes but always go back to that fuel and never let it burn out. The moment it burns out, you’ve lost your purpose, right? Maybe that’s an indication that this isn’t the path for you, which is a hard part, you know? I’m like, “Am I doing the right thing?” I think the way you know is if the fuel’s gone out, if you haven’t got anything to keep you going.

My parents were navigating, like yourself, coming to a different country and before the time of Google and smartphones and saying, “Hey, we’re black, and we’re moving to the south of all places.” Like, what? Most people are like, “We’re going to go to New York or California.” You’re going to the south, are you crazy? I can imagine the fears that they experienced, but they never allowed it to encapsulate them.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, it’s really powerful. I love that fear could be the thing that really drives you and how you reframe it, or it could be the thing that ultimately just stops you. You just can’t get around it. That pebble will turn into a boulder, like you said, if you don’t pay attention to it and really come to a resolve. I mean, I am so grateful that parents know and understand these things from their life.

They can really teach us, the younger generations, how they’ve overcome those things, right? It’s their actions, it’s their lives, and honestly, let’s be real, we don’t even understand or recognize how tough that must have been until we grow up, right? Until we actually realize the difficulties we are experiencing in modern – with tools and all of these things, right? So you recognize the hardships but also the simplicity that they, I’m sure, applied to thinking in that way and how it impacted you, that’s very beautiful.

So in addition to your medical career, you also are a motivational speaker, and an entrepreneur, can you tell us a little bit about other passions and pursuits and how they have enriched your life?

Lattisha Bilbrew: I just think that you should always evolve. You should never get stuck and one of my favorite lessons in the book is that glass ceilings are meant to be broken. They’re just there so that you can see what’s on the other side and then grab your hammer — one of my favorite tools as an orthopedic surgeon — and break through it.

So, I am a shareholder. I’m an extremely good surgeon, extremely good physician and diagnostician, and now I’m like, “Okay, well, I am good at that, and I will continue to refine it but I also love other things and that’s okay.” And my next pursuit, my next passion, is designing my own scrub line, which as I’m starting to kind of drop that, everyone is like, “What? You’re just releasing a book, you’re gonna do what now?”

I love fashion. I dress up to clinic every day. I take pleasure in colors and patterns, and scrubs are made like boxes. It’s like I can’t keep operating in this, so I have a — it is called The Windrush Company. Windrush was the name of the ship that transported Jamaican migrants to England over three or four decades, and it’s a homage to my grandparents and their generation and what they had to overcome.

Everyone that came on that ship came with very little, but they did come with pride. They did come with a sense of style and a courage that is insurmountable. With my scrubs, I think it’s important that we feel confident in what we wear and how we present ourselves, and I think it is important to our patients, too, that you don’t come in crushed scrubs. When I was an attending or a chief, I would send a medical student home.

You cannot come in a crushed white coat; that is disrespectful to the patient. Show that you care about yourself to show that you care about them. So I am very excited about my scrub line. It’s still in, I have my R&D, and so it’s now getting into manufacturing and I’m hoping it will be launched by the end of the year.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Incredible. I love it; that sounds amazing. I think this ever-evolving growth mentality of just like the question of like, “I’m just trying to reach my potential. What am I capable of?” Trying different things and doing different things isn’t necessary that we’re lost. I can’t tell you how much I parallel to this story because I went to architecture school, graphic design business.

Opened my own business, I did my t-shirt thing for a long time. I developed a thing called Refutees, which in a way was my creative expression in response to my heritage and what I went through and shedding a positive light on these beautiful people that come here and add so much value to our culture. I think there is something about this idea of once you start to understand that the barriers that we think are in place are kind of like a 60-40.

There is a systemic avenue to all of this that creates these invisible barriers, but then there’s the mental barriers that I feel like are just as, if not sometimes stronger than what’s actually there and when you break through a few and you start to realize, “Oh, I got this momentum. I’m going to keep carrying it through.” I feel like a lot of people around me sometimes have asked like, “Oh you were doing this thing last year, now you are doing this thing.” And it’s like, “No, no, no, I am not doing multiple things because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I’m trying to figure out what parts of me I have not explored, right? And that is what drives me to go speak and do this and do that and just explore more creative processes, and I find that in your work and what you’re trying to do now with your scrub line. I think that’s so fun, and yes, some of those scrubs are boring, so thanks for bringing some color to it, you know what I mean?

Yeah, the hospital doesn’t need to be just white and drab, right? Bring that fashion in, you know? Making people smile and making people feel good, that’s part of the healing process, so I commend you for that. Your book is so inspiring and empowering, and it’s a powerful resource. For anyone facing challenges in their personal or professional life, what messages do you have or do you hope readers will take away from your book and how do you hope it will impact their life?

Lattisha Bilbrew: I think the main thing I want them to take away is that again, it’s the word perseverance. It’s grit. This is for the folks that have been told no and know that they’re going to be told no again, but yet they know inside of themselves that they’re capable. You know, I always said this isn’t a self-help book. This isn’t for the person who is trying to figure out, “Can I do this?” This is for the person that says, “I can do this,” but maybe they’re getting a little tired on the path.

Maybe they’ve had one too many doors shut in their face, and they were like, “Man, what’s next? I know I can accomplish this.” And I want them to take away that when you’re on this journey, when you’re on this path, you have to be confident in yourself. You can’t let that fuel die out but you also have to be prepared, and most importantly, you have to be qualified. So again, this is for the person that knows they can do it, they’re fully capable, they just need someone to kind of show them a little bit more of the blueprint, you know? I think everything in life is about a blueprint, and a blueprint has been created for most things already; it’s just not shared, right? That is why there is only one black female orthopedic surgeon at my company. That’s why I was the only one and still the only one from fellowship.

We are not sharing this blueprint, and I want people to take this book and as they learn those lessons, then turn back around and say, “Okay, now my shoulders are stronger. Who can stand with me?”

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I am so moved by that. I really appreciate your perspective on so many levels, not just from an educational perspective but also a sharing and collaborative effort in saying, “We can create more seats for this table. There are so many doors we can open for one another as opposed to keep shutting them. Let me be that person on the other side of the boundary that you think is there, reaching a hand out to pull you through.”

I love that so much because this book is one amazing way to reach and impact others, and I hope you can continue this work. It’s amazing. What would you say was your favorite part of writing this book? The thing that you’re like, “Yes, it came together,” what was your favorite part?

Lattisha Bilbrew: My favorite part of writing the book is the parts where I just kind of make fun of myself. I think people forget, like they see me, and they’re like, “Orthopedic surgeon, oh my gosh, so serious.” And I’m just like, “I am a complete jokester.” My life is a sitcom. The things that have happened to me in my childhood, in college, are laughable. I mean, I would sit here and laugh as I remembered like, “God, that is embarrassing.”

I talk about some embarrassing stuff in my book that I still laugh at it as an adult, probably made me cry as a child. That has been my favorite part, to turn that mirror and look at myself and be like, “Girl, you crazy, what were you thinking?”

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I love that. I love this idea of just taking it easy, not being so serious and I think again, this adds to the idea of where you are today actually aligns so well with your charisma and your personality to bring your full self. I think that’s the one thing I feel like when I was reading your book, even as a four or five-year-old girl, you sensed that lack of energy in the room when that person, that medical, whether it be a nurse or doctor, handing your grandmother those pills, that it didn’t come with the love, the compassion, the empathy, the color, the excitement, the joy and of course, the education to help someone like your grandma. I feel like you really – it sounds like to me, you grew up to be the person that you wished would have been there, and that is so beautiful to recognize in your journey, I got to tell you that.

Lattisha Bilbrew: Thank you so much. I wrapped up clinic just a couple of hours ago and I strive to be that and sometimes I see thirty people in a half-day, which is crazy, right? But I’ll tell you, 95 percent of my patients will say that I spend enough and more than enough time with them. You can get tired sometimes, you know, mentally, physically, walking back and forth and I always remind myself, I think about my grandmother, and every patient deserves to feel heard and seen and appreciated.

Even if it’s patients who are repetitive where I’m like, “Man, you’ve said that five times.” I’m like, “Shut up, Lattisha,” you know? “You shut up and they paid you to be here and you listen,” and I pride myself on that. Before I leave my patient’s room, I always say, “What questions do you have for me?” Instead of “Any questions?” Because that’s so abrupt, you know?

“What questions do you have for me?” And I pause and I probably ask that two or three times before I leave the room because I don’t want any patients to leave the room not knowing their diagnosis, not knowing the prognosis, not knowing their treatments. There are rare times I’ll have a patient that says, “Dr. Bill didn’t explain anything.” I’m like, “You get a phone call, something happened, where was the breakdown? Let me apologize because I am supposed to be your healer and let’s go back and let’s start again.” So for me, empathy, kindness, and compassion is everything as a physician.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: When we lead from there, I think as a physician or a business owner or a mother or whatever, I feel like when you have those components of you embedded in your personality and you really grow to manifest those even more within yourself, then it’s like whatever you do, whatever you touch, whoever you come in contact with, that’s what comes out. You know what I’m saying?

You being a specialist and an amazing surgeon, all those things just so happen to be the bonus of you, right? I feel like sometimes today in our society we think it’s the reverse. It’s like, “Let me get these skills and just become the best at this.” But then they tack on these other beautiful attributes.

Because it’s like if you can emphasize the time to grow these things just as much as you emphasize the time on becoming you know, great with the, I don’t even know the instruments you all use. I am just so ignorant to being a doctor, see what I’m saying? The scalpel, probably the only tool I know because I feel like we use it in art too. So today, I feel like I’ve just been honored to have just spent some time with you and really get to know you a little bit.

Your book, it is one of those things for me when I try to go through books and learn, not learn about the person but really learn from what you are trying to say through story, I immediately didn’t want to put it down and it made me want to read the rest of it. I ran out of time and so I am excited to get into the rest of the book but Lattisha, it’s been such an honor. Thank you for sharing your stories and your experiences with me and the audience.

The book is called, Yes, I Am a Surgeon: Lessons on Perseverance in a World that Tells You No. Besides checking out the book on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, all that good stuff, where can people find you and connect with you?

Lattisha Bilbrew: Yes, so you can find me on Instagram, @lattishabilbrew_md, you can find me on Facebook at Dr. Lattisha Bilbrew, same thing with Twitter, Dr. Lattisha Bilbrew. I have a website,, that’s and yeah, reach out. Shoot me a DM, I actually have my website where you can schedule a time to chat with me if you’re a student or a professional and you just need some motivation.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much. I am actually going to send this episode to my nephew who is in medical school right now in the Bahamas.

Lattisha Bilbrew: Oh, yes.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Isn’t that amazing?

Lattisha Bilbrew: Love it.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, so I’m for sure going to be sending him your info as well, just to look you up and see if he can gain some insights, which I am sure he will and of course, get his hands on this book. Lattisha, again, it’s been such an honor. Thank you for coming on today, an absolute pleasure.

Lattisha Bilbrew: Thank you for having me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yes, congratulations on your book.

Lattisha Bilbrew: Thank you.