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Dr. Margaret Larkins-PettigrewDr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew

JS: Hello, this is John Stanko. Back once again for an interview with one of the Center for Urban Biblical Ministries Urban Heroes for 2009/2010. And our heroes are people who are serving in the community, day in and day out that you may not know about them, but you need to know about them. And today I have Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew on the line. Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew, hello, how are you?

LP: I’m fine, how are you?

JS: Doing good, thank you. Thanks for joining the Urban Heroes program. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing right now and who you are and how you’re involved, day in and day out in the work world.

LP: I’m a physician here at the University of Pittsburgh. My specialty is gynecology. I am also the head of their global health program and reproductive sciences at Magee Women’s Hospital for the department. Basically, what I’m doing is seeing patients about 80% of my time, and I’m actually doing some global health work, both locally and internationally.

JS: And, explain to our listeners and readers of what exactly is global health. What does that involve?

LP: Well, global health involves trying to teach our residents, faculty, and medical students how to be global physicians, how to take care of patients that are underresourced, under-served, and basically here and abroad. We want to make sure they understand the challenges of women throughout the world, so they can be better providers no matter where they are.

JS: And so, is this an optional part of their training? How do they get exposure to this global health program?

LP: It is an optional part of their training. We do have a global health track, where physicians who are interested in making global health their career choice, actually are in the track, and they actually do a lot more with global health. They travel and take courses that are universitywide and actually deal with taking care at both home and abroad as it relates to women throughout the world and the challenges of infant mortalities, and women in essence. And we do also offer this opportunity to people who are, really not trying to make it a career, but want to have some exposure to this.

JS: So how many students do you have in the program? Is that an appropriate question?

LP: It is, it is. At the university at this program, we only have four global health track residents that travel throughout the year. But throughout the university, there are global health tracks in other disciplines. So, we have many residents and medical students who are interested in global health and who travel abroad. They’re here and really interested in making a life commitment to working in the global health arena.

JS: Now, did you say you were overseeing that program?

LP: Yes. I am overseeing the program at the Health Department of OBGYN and Reproductive Health.

JS: So, does that involve teaching and coordination and travel? What all is involved with that?

LP: It does. It involves teaching of the residents, coordinating the program, making connections as well as collaborations with other countries, other leaders of countries, and physicians as well who are interested in making a difference in global health.

JS: But you have your own practice too?

LP: Oh, I do. I have a practice that is actually owned by the university and I am a faculty of the University. So basically I am employed by the University.

JS: Well, I guess it begs the question doctor, how do you do it all?

LP: Well, you know, when you’re really interested in something and you have a passion for it, and you know that the work has to be done, somehow you manage to get it done. My global health push in my career started many, many years ago. But I’ve only been heading this program at the university for the last two years. I’ve been working abroad as a volunteer in many of the other countries, and that’s how I became interested in it. And the department recognized that it’s something very valuable, that we need to invest and really educate our future physicians.

JS: Now talk to us a little bit about how you got involved, back as a volunteer. What was the entrance point for you? How did you get interested?

LP: I think the biggest draw for me was the interest of continuing to help people who are under-resourced and underserved. And I felt that I was doing a lot here at home by working with a practice that went to many of the communities that serve women who are challenged psychologically, socially, and economically. But I felt that there was a greater need globally.

So I actually was invited to go as a medical professional to Ghana, which was my first intro into international travel to the African countries. I had gone as a resident to Budapest to do some teaching, but my trip to Ghana from at least eight years ago, was my first intro recognizing that this was my passion. Clearly I felt that this was my calling. I worked in the refugee camps in Ghana. These are refugees who had escaped from Liberia and many of them had been living in this camp for their entire lives. They had never seen a physician in their lives. So that was my initial introduction into what I believed was that God took me there for a reason. And so, I continue to work in that arena.

JS: So take us back. What did you go through that first trip? What did you see? How did it impact you?

LP: The camp was of course in Ghana, a place where we believe that many of us African Americans actually came from during the times of the middle passage and slavery. So going to that country was special because I would have the opportunity to actually visit some of the slave castles and really kind of get a feel for what it was like for my ancestors. But at the same time [I had the chance] to actually witness the challenges of African people as it is today.

And the invitation to the camp, when I initially decided that I would go and wanted to be a part of, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. At that time, there were 33,000 refugees in that camp. The organization that I actually went with and continue to work with today is called Project Africa Global, the main office is out of Los Angeles. But they have been traveling to many countries. Liberia, Ghana, some of the southern countries; South Africa and Swaziland.

But this particular trip was in Ghana and what I saw there basically told me that the challenge was tremendous. Globally, what we need to think about as it relates to caring for people to taking care of the human spirit. And it was more than just medical care. It was understanding the challenges of the traditions, understanding their beliefs, and total commitment to God, and what God means in their lives.

These were happy people. Living in a refugee camp and happy if they got one meal a day, it was something wonderful. But they were still very content that they were there for a purpose, that they although struggling in the camp, but that at someday they would have an opportunity to make a difference in other peoples lives. And I think that it was such a humbling experience with these people who we see as at the bottom of what we consider to be their life existence. Still to look up, and say, “You know what. I’m here for a reason. God’s giving me strength because He has a purpose for me.” And that, of course, just enhanced my belief that, you know, there are so many messages around that say God’s leading your life. And He’s been leading my life every step of the way.

JS: So you’ve been back to Africa many times since then?

LP: I have been, I have been. I’ve been primarily working in Swaziland, where this organization has continued to go. Swaziland is this small country to the east of South Africa. It has a population of 1 million and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, because it’s so small. And this organization has continued to work there for years as guests of the king, in order to try and reverse the increase of HIV/AIDS, especially as it relates to women and children.

JS: Right. So, do you think it’s made you a better doctor back home when you come back to the States?

LP: Oh, definitely. In my generation as a provider, there are so many things that I have not seen and probably never will see that physicians before me, who live in the country, had to take care of and deal with as physicians. The world is really small when you think about diseases that can potentially harm us again. That can come back to these shores. We’re seeing that every single day. We’re seeing an increase in the number of TB and malaria and other illnesses that we never suspected would come back onto our shore. So, I think globally understanding not only the disease entity portion of it, but the whole challenge of this large world that we live in, the economics of this world – the fact that the human spirit will be revealed to you no matter where you are – [is really important]. People touch your lives with their story, and they’re not sad stories. Most of them are stories of hope and stories of success in their arenas.

JS: Well, I’ve been to Africa many times. I’ve done a lot of work in Zimbabwe and Kenya. And I’ve always said, it makes me a better pastor back home, makes me a better worker, and it just expanded my world that what I do and where I live is not the center of the universe, that there’s this whole big world out there. And at the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry, we try and take our students on a missions trip once a year, generally to Africa [so they can] experience some of those things, but certainly not to the level that you have. Let’s go back a little bit to talk about your calling to medicine. When did you know? How did you know? And tell us a little bit about your education and your journey going back to school years.

LP: I think I have to start back to when I was a young girl living in Lemont Furnace, right outside of Uniontown, PA. My father was a coal miner there, right across in West Virginia. We lived in a very small town, in the time where there wasn’t running water or inside toilets. We didn’t have any of those things. We still had outside toilets that we used. It was very much country, as you would call it today.

And I think that coming from that place told me that there was more to my life, that I needed to think about giving to others. Because as a child, not even understanding - well look at the world today, that I was very poor, but very rich at heart. Very rich, because I had a two-parent family, I had a large family who loved me and cared for me and who inspired me to be the best that I can be, in order to take care of others. And that was a seed that was planted by my mother and father and my grandparents at a very, very young age, that I needed to be a citizen of this world, devoted to do what God’s purpose was for me. And that came from my mother and father as a young, young child.

And we actually moved from that little town into McKeesport, PA, which I considered to be a large city. And if you know anything about this city, you know it’s not very large. I didn’t even see Pittsburgh proper until I was an adult, until I actually moved to college. So I was pretty much sheltered and basically protected from many of the elements in my world at that time. But I was very educated about what was happening outside my own doors. And that I should probably, really consider making the right choices for the right reasons, in order to make a difference.

And my first job as a young teenager was working in the McKeesport hospital as a candy striper, and at that time they called them. And it was basically someone who would feed patients and walk patients and bring magazines to them and talk with them – just someone who would be with them when their families weren’t there, who could offer some comfort.

But as a young girl, I didn’t realize how much comfort I was offering to people who were actually sick. And it was at that time that I decided that medicine was where I needed to be, where I could actively live my life and do something for other people in a way that I felt would fit my personality and would somehow make a difference.

JS: So, that was a decision that you made in high school, pretty much?

LP: Yes.

JS: So you graduated from McKeesport High?

LP: I graduated from McKeesport High School, but not until after I had a child. I actually had a child when I was 16. Or 17, actually. I had a child, and again, I saw that as a very negative experience. At first, because I made a choice that I knew that was not one that my parents were proud of, as far as my behavior. But because they were strong, and they were supportive of me, to a point where they did not coddle me, they told me that this was just another part of the responsibility that I needed to accept. And that it meant that I had to take a higher level of education than I had even thought about, that I had to really make sure that I was going to be responsible, for not just myself, but for a child that I had chosen to bring into this world.

I think that it strengthened my faith and made me realize that I could do things that I never thought that I could do before. And my first educational experience was in nursing school. And I went to the University of Pittsburgh, during the time the Civil Rights movement was coming out of the killing of Martin Luther King, the marches. I actually finished my bachelor degree in 1976. But went in there when there were very few African Americans who had actually gotten into the class of nursing class, here at the university, or graduated.

And it was through Affirmative Action, and to this day I know that I would not be where I am today without Affirmative Action. Because it opened doors that would not have been open for me. I had the grades. I was smart. I had done well in college. But the door that said, “Well let her come and see what she can do here,” that was an opportunity that the University of Pittsburgh gave me through one of the programs they had at that time. And there were 24 students who were actually in that program, and there were two of us who actually finished it, four years later in nursing school.

JS: So then, did you go on to medical school? Or did you work for a while?

LP: I worked. I was with my husband at that time. We traveled and moved to Los Angeles. I got other degrees in nursing. I got a nurse practitioners certificate and a master’s degree in education. And if you listened to my husband, I really didn’t have a real job because I was still going to school every time he turned around. But I knew that I hadn’t reached the point where I knew God wanted me to be. I knew that I needed to do more and be more.

The turning point for me was when I worked in the Intensive Care Unit as a nurse – a one-on-one experience with patients from all walks of life, who were subjected to significant trauma in their lives, from either chronic disease or traumatic injury. I worked closely with the patient as well as the family. [I came to] really understand that pain and suffering can be healed from the touched, from the beyond the reach of medication, a touch a voice. It taught me that there was more to this practice of medicine that God has given us. So, that’s when I decided that I wanted to go back to Med School.

JS: So still one child then, or more?

LP: No, at that point, my husband and I had two children. So we had three children, and we were living in Los Angeles at that time.

JS: So you decided to go back to medical school. Where do you apply? What do you do?

LP: So, I decided to go to medical school, and that’s a big ticket for a lot people that understand that process. [I decided] to go to medical school as an adult, who had been out making bills, and having children. And deciding to give up your previous career to move on to your new career, meant a lot of changes in my own family’s life. My husband at that time had his own career that he had been working on, and we were living in Alabama at the time.

JS: Where in Alabama?

LP: In Tuskegee, Alabama.

JS: Yeah, I lived in Mobile for 14 years.

LP: That’s a beautiful place too.

JS: Yes. Well we enjoyed our time in Alabama. It was a great place to raise a family.

LP: So we left. I actually applied to medical school when I was in Alabama. I actually got accepted at a school in Atlanta, as well as in Pittsburgh. Well, most of my family members were still here in Pittsburgh. And so it was our decision that I would move back to Pittsburgh in order to start medical school here because I had more supporting persons here. And that was what we decided to do. My husband was actually the vice president of Tuskegee at that time. So he made a lot of sacrifices to make this happen for me. But I think that we both to this day clearly understand, and understood at that time, that it was a sacrifice that we knew we needed to make in order to ultimately make a difference in a lot more peoples lives than we were already doing.

JS: So what year are we in that you come back to Pittsburgh? And how old were you at the time?

LP: It was 1987 when I applied and got in. It was ‘89 when I came back to the University of Pittsburgh. I’m 55 now, so let’s track the years.

JS: Yeah, you were 35. And so, how long is the program? You go through 5 years, 6 years? How long?

LP: The program is usually four years. I did five years. I actually did two years, and then a year of research, and then went back and finished my last two years. And then finished my degree, my medical degree. But you know after your medical degree, you actually decide what you will specialize in as it relates to OB or pediatrician or surgery. And I had made up my mind a long time ago that it was going to be OBGYN, the care of women. And that was four years after that I went to med school. I went to med school and then I went on to four years of residency to finish my specialty.

JS: Here in Pittsburgh?

LP: Here in Pittsburgh. I started actually in the military. Have to back it up a little bit. I did start in the military, in the Navy, I did my first year. And then came back to Pittsburgh to do my last three years at Magee Women’s Hospital.

JS: Now, you’ve mentioned God a number of times as kind of a foundation or a base from which you’ve operated. Where did that come from? Were your parents church people? Were you raised in church?

LP: I was. Mount Olivet Baptist Church was my first church, which is there in Uniontown, PA. And to this day we visit, because it was my first home church. And that’s where it all came from. And I think that my parents had the faith, knowing that’s how they were raised, and if I was going to make decisions that ultimately would help myself and help other people, that I really had to have a strong foundation and understand that I am not ultimately in control of this at all.

Everything that comes to us, no matter how it comes to us, comes through God. And that we accept it and do with it what we feel God needs us to do with it. That’s how my father would speak with us, and talk with us about all the time, how we could not even wake up in the morning without thinking about purpose. And that’s where it came from. And we had been through multiple churches. Meaning as I was growing up, my father, although he was a Christian, really wanted us to be exposed to other ...

JS: Denominations?

LP: Yeah, denominations. Although I was raised a Baptist, we attended Catholic Mass, at one point I actually learned the books of the Bible through the Jehovah Witness lessons. But what it did was gave me a greater perspective on what I really needed to know in order to be a stronger Christian, in order to defend my faith.

A lot of times we talk about fear of other faiths coming around, and not wanting to hear what they have to say. But I think what it did for me was to help me realize that there’s only one relationship with God that I really need to be concerned about. And that was my relationship with Him and that ultimately, if I always put Him first, all of the things that he wanted to do through faith and witnessing, would come through who I am and what I’m about and what I do for other people.

JS: And I know you’re so busy professionally, today, but are you involved in a church?

LP: I am, I am. I raised my children here. Well, we’ve been involved in church every place we’ve lived, and we’ve lived in a few places, as you know. But my children were raised, when I came back to med school, they were raised at Metropolitan Baptist on the North Side, Rev. Lacy Richardson. And then once my children were grown and we had moved away, and I had finished my military commitment and came back to Pittsburgh, we joined a church on The Hill, Macedonia Baptist Church. And we’ve been active in Macedonia since we’ve been back. And that’s where we worship still.

JS: Publications? Do you like to write? Have you published? Have you written much?

LP: I do like to write. I write poetry, which I subject my family to all the time. But I’ve only published in my discipline, from my experiences through medical school and residency. And as a practicing physician, I’ve only published about some of the techniques in medicine. Ultimately, I really do want to write. But I really want to write about my life.

JS: Well, it is a fascinating story. And I help people write books, so keep me in mind. I’d love to help you. You have one fantastic journey to share. It would just be so inspirational to many, many people.

LP: I was going to say, you never think that. And I would hate to think that people would depend on me to be a role model because we’re always thinking that we’re still such babies in Christ. We want to do the best we can, and we want to be mentors, at some point. But sometimes, I know that I’m struggling like many other people who are as old as I am, and who are working just as hard as I am.

JS: Well, you know God can take our stories and use them to inspire others. And if that’s what He wants to do, then we submit to that as well. I know Rick Warren, in the Purpose Driven Life, said one of the biggest lessons he had to learn was that God wanted him to be influential. And he could not shy away from that because it was part of God’s will and purpose for him. And I just sense the same thing for you. Looking back, and I’m 59, so we get a little more reflective. What do you think your greatest accomplishment is? What one thing would you pull out of this pretty impressive stack of things and say this is what’s my...

LP: I’d have to say my children. The reason why I say that is that a lot of people say, “Oh my your children are wonderful.” But I do absolutely have three wonderful Godloving, God-fearing children. I would love to have you meet them and have just a dialogue with them about where they are with their faith, about where they are with their whole understanding of their life purpose. They just are such fantastic young men, who are respected in their circles. And they are the ones who I am just so proud of.

I think that’s been the hardest job that I’ve ever had. That I continue to ask God... my husband and I were raising them and working so hard to raise these three African American men in this country, through all the challenges that I used to doubt God and say, “Clearly you’ve made a mistake, to give me three young men.” I used to say, “Lord, I really am questioning you. Because, can we really do this? Because, we want them to be so wonderful, so articulate, so that they can also bear witness to the goodness, so that they can actually do some very positive things.”

And I am so proud to say, and I know people say this all the time, but if you were to meet my three children, you would definitely say that these children clearly, clearly have God’s thumb on their pulse.

JS: Wow. Well that is quite an impressive statement to make. Any favorite verse that you pull or draw on over and over again that speaks to you every time you go to it?

LP: Psalms 139. It’s the verses that talk about Him knowing us even in the womb of our parents.

JS: Oh yeah. Fearfully and wonderfully made.

LP: Yes. And I love that verse. He knows me when you’re down. I wish I could quote it. I keep thinking I’ll have to go back and memorize it. There’s a number of them in this passage that just talk about, that if no one else knows you, He knows you.

JS: Well, that’s for sure. The time goes so fast. I could talk to you for two hours. And we certainly appreciate you’re generosity of time and extending what you have to us. As we wrap up and close, people who are reading or listening to you, what words of advice could you give to them? Maybe they’re saying, “You know, what difference can I make?” Or they’re looking at making an impact in the community and the world, something that you certainly have done. What words could you leave for them?

LP: Well I love the song that one singer did, and I’m sure other people have actually done this song before. But it’s just the song called, Ordinary People. I love to sing that song. And I think the words of that song express my life in what God really can do for you. God uses ordinary people, just like you and me. And little becomes much if you place it in the Masters hands. And so when you doubt that you don’t have anything to offer, that you have no talent. You need to understand that God’s purpose should be your purpose. He will actually take care of you, and make sure that you make a difference in your life as well as others.

JS: That’s wonderful. Do you have any kind of Christian fellowship for some of the students? Is there a gathering of like-minds and likehearts at Pitt? Is that anything you’re involved in?

LP: I am not personally involved in it. But there are organizations there, and there’s a group on campus, multiple groups on campus. I’m not that close to the University students at this point, to be involved with their student groups. My husband is actually working at the university. He’s one of the assistant deans and head of diversity there. So he’s involved in many of the student groups there. But there are many groups on campus that are very active and not only are they active as it relates to making sure that they uplift one another and that they continue to live out their faith while on campus and while they’re away from their parents and their loved ones, but that they are really targeting their careers so that they know that they’re going to make a difference, once they leave the university.

JS: And when is your next trip to Africa? Do you have anything planned?

LP: I do. My next is actually on the 27th of August. We are going to Swaziland. We have a team of about thirty physicians and nurses, social workers, and students. We have both HIV negative and positive students who go to Africa with us and they get together with positive and negative students in Swaziland and hold a two to three day retreat on understanding changing behavior – understanding what God’s purpose is for them as it relates to understanding their bodies and making better choices. So there’s a lot coming up and we’re leaving very shortly. So that’s a trip that we’re working on right now.

JS: Well the Lord bless you as you go and again we want to thank you Dr. Larkins-Pedigrew, for your time. And we look forward to updates that we can pass on to our Urban Heroes listeners and readers and we so appreciate what you’re doing to impact our community and impact the world. And we are delighted to have you as part of the program, and just wish you all the best and Gods blessings as you continue to go and grow.

LP: Thank you so much. And ditto to you as well. I can’t believe that this is a program that you all put together. Because I am just so excited that, first of all, you’re doing the project. And I am just amazed that I am one of the ones chosen to participate.

JS: Well, you’re a very humble person. Maybe God just whispered in our ear that you were around. But you’re doing a wonderful job, and thank you again for all you do. And you’ll be hearing from me. And when you have a chance, I know you’re busy, if you could send a picture, that would be great.

LP: Alright, thank you so much.

JS: Doctor, thank you. God bless.

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