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Lucille Norville Perez, M.D. ‘79

Lucille Norville PerezFor a doctor who is also an ordained minister, practicing medicine means healing body, soul and society. 

Lucille Norville Perez, M.D. ‘79
School of Medicine

Dr. Lucy Perez has the youthful vigor—and appearance—of a woman many years younger. Her passion for doing right by people impels her to take on challenges that ordinary folks might find daunting. Her six-year-old son JayCee came into her life on the wings of such a challenge.

As a physician, Lucille Norville Perez, M.D. ’79, labors to heal broken bodies. As a minister, she tends to broken spirits with the same compassion and skill she brings to doctoring. And in trying to close the gap in access to affordable health care that persists between whites and minorities, she invokes herself as an example, a casualty of an unjust medical hierarchy.

“Both my parents died at 61,” recalls Dr. Perez, a resident of Bethesda, Md., who has kept her Brooklyn accent. “My mother was a diabetic with chronic renal failure, blind and an amputee when she died—and she was a registered nurse!”

For Dr. Perez, who once served as national health director of the NAACP, mending health care disparities begins with instilling a sense of empowerment to vulnerable patients, whether they’re battling chronic illness or entrenched poverty. Her passion for the task goes back many years to when she was a pediatric resident at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she treated children with leukemia and cystic fibrosis. “When a child looked up at me and asked, ‘Am I going to die today?’ it tore my heart out, and reminded me that I had to keep fighting for these patients,” she says.

A fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center after her residency placed Dr. Perez in the vanguard of adolescent medicine, then a fledgling specialty. “This new idea that children could see their health provider alone, no parents in the room, was super spooky,” she says. “Doctors were just arriving at the concept of teenagers as individuals.”

In the early 1980s, Dr. Perez served as attending physician at Gouverneur Hospital in Manhattan, where she treated adolescents from a range of backgrounds: Asian, Latino, African-American. “I realized that to become a better doctor, I had to get rid of my personal biases,” she says. “Underneath their different skin tones and modes of dress, all my patients struggled with the same emotions: stress, anxiety and the temptation to rebel.”

As a consultant for New York City’s Department of Health, Dr. Perez developed several programs for teenagers to address substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy, including a “Teens and Tots” group for adolescent parents. She also helped start the city’s first school-based clinics, noting firsthand the violence that plagued the public education system in poor neighborhoods.

In the minority

A growing awareness of the cards stacked against minorities inspired Dr. Perez to found the Cave Institute, a venture committed to eliminating health care disparities through research, ethics and advocacy. Cave was her mother’s maiden name, and that of her medical family of three doctors, a registered nurse and a medical librarian. The family tradition and values are carried on by her daughter Nikki, 25, now a third-year medical student at Howard University who aspires to a career in orthopedic surgery.

Through Cave, Dr. Perez conducted surveys of faculty at historically black colleges and universities, highlighting pay and funding disparities in comparison with similar white institutions. She also brought clergy into discussions, noting that “faith leaders exert a significant influence on beliefs and attitudes in communities of color.” Above all, she has tried to instill awareness among minorities of the obstacles that hamstring their lives.

When her older son Juan Carlos, now 30, was growing up, Dr. Perez showed him the neighborhoods of Park Slope, an affluent white enclave of Brooklyn, and Flatbush, a poorer minority section.

Keeping the Faith

Dr. Lucy Perez has the youthful vigor—and appearance—of a woman many years younger. Her passion for doing right by people impels her to take on challenges that ordinary folks might find daunting. Her six-year-old son JayCee came into her life on the wings of such a challenge. The contrast between the manicured gardens of the former and trash-ridden streets of the latter prompted him to ask his mother why blacks “don’t get rid of their garbage.” She asked him to count the garbage cans they saw in each district. “In Park Slope, there was one next to every bench. In Flatbush, we went blocks before we saw one,” Dr. Perez says. “We must make clear to our children: ‘This is not my culture, this is not my fault. This is political oppression, unfair and unjust. And I don’t have to accept it.’ This way, they’re not paralyzed, but empowered.”

After Hurricane Katrina left poor Gulf residents strapped for basic health services, Dr. Perez formed a coalition to provide emergency health care. She worked with the sitting presidents of black health professional advocacy organizations, and a host of civil and human rights groups. She tapped as her adviser Phyllis Harrison-Ross, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry, who taught her when she was a medical student. “In the autumn of my career, she’s again instructing me,” says Dr. Perez. A subcommittee of this coalition still meets twice a month to provide mental health services that to this day are still inadequate.

Since 2006 Dr. Perez has been the national medical director for UPRIS, a Cleveland-based company that specializes in health information technology delivered in a culturally appropriate manner to promote health literacy in patients. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) uses UPRIS portals, with patient consent, to monitor the health of more than 6 million congregants. Health information, including culturally appropriate prevention messages, can be disseminated to congregants via a trusted AMEC portal.

Faith calls

Such ventures spring from Dr. Perez’s intense faith in humanity to work toward repairing the world, perhaps inspired, as she is, by ardent religious beliefs. Her outgoing voice mail message proclaims: God is good, and he loves you. “I believe we are spirits having a bodily experience,” says Dr. Perez, who in 2002 was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church while serving as the 102nd president of the National Medical Association. In 2006 she adopted the son of a family friend struggling with mental illness. “I was asked to watch little JayCee for four days,” she says, “and in December it will be three years.”

To Dr. Perez, the spiritual beliefs of a patient—how often he attends church, his sense of something greater than himself—should carry the same weight as smoking habits or family history in a medical exam. Belief and faith are crucial to healing, she says, and “invaluable to the practice of medicine.”

“You could be wasting resources on drugs, therapy or interventions that are not heeded, because they clash with someone’s belief system,” she says. “So if I don’t explore deeper to tap that belief system, I haven’t led you to a path of healing.”