Back when she was a tenth-grader in Montgomery, Alabama, Melinda Willingham (then Williams) asked a science teacher what courses she’d have to take in college to become a doctor. Well, he replied, maybe you should think about being a nurse. “I don’t know why he said that,” she says, her voice betraying little more than amusement at the memory. “Maybe because I’m a woman, or maybe because I’m black. But that was in the South, so probably both.”
Melinda can afford the detachment: These days she’s Dr. Willingham, a third-year resident in the emergency room at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, where she’s finishing her pediatrics training. Later this year she’ll enter private practice — the best offers are in Atlanta and northern New Jersey — and everything will be in place pretty much the way she wants it: husband (George, a financial adviser), kids (Gerard, 5, and Jasmine, 9 months) and career.
University Hospital is in a poor part of town. Most of the ER patients are poor and black or Hispanic, and the pediatric ailments are typical for an inner city: accidents and the standard childhood illnesses, but also asthma, AIDS, sickle-cell anemia and complications from pregnancies. At 8 p.m. on an April evening, Melinda is starting the night shift, and though she describes it as quiet, it seems anything but. A half-dozen or so sick children are in the various beds — usually accompanied by their mothers, who often have one or two other children in tow.
Melinda decided on pediatrics during her third year of med school, in part, as she says, because “children bounce back.” Still, it can be hard — especially when patients die: “Child-abuse cases are awful. You get a two-month-old with a broken leg, and the parents are telling you it’s this and that when you know very well it’s abuse.”
Her hours are long — sixty or seventy a week — but the money’s good, or will be soon. Third-year residents make only $42,000 a year — not a lot when you consider that Melinda has $100,000 in student loans. But when she enters private practice, she could make as much as $120,000. George adds another $20,000 to $50,000, depending on how good a year he’s having.
The couple met at a job fair in Washington, D.C., during Melinda’s first year out of college. “At first neither of us wanted anything serious,” Melinda says, “but after three months we knew it was going to be a long-term thing.” Two years later they were married.
Family means everything to her. Melinda’s father was an Air Force enlisted man; she was born in the Philippines and moved from there to California, then New Jersey, Michigan and Arizona. But all along the way, her father and mother kept things together. “When I was growing up,” she says, “they were pretty strict. I could only go out on one weekend night, and not on weeknights at all. Sundays were for schooling at the Baptist church.” While she’s become lax in her commitment to religion, she says she’ll raise her kids as she was raised. “There are so many things that happen in life,” she says. “If you don’t have something higher that you believe in, I don’t know how you make it.”
When Melinda was in junior high, her father was transferred again, this time to Alabama. Life was a little different there. “In 1982,” she says, “the Ku Klux Klan was still holding marches outside the mall.” Later, at the University of Alabama, she pledged a black sorority; soon after it moved to Sorority Row, someone burned a cross on the front lawn. Melinda tells the story without a trace of bitterness. “I think it’s an individual thing,” she says. “There are just some ignorant people. I don’t think about race unless I’m forced to. Sometimes I’ll wonder if I didn’t get a position because of it.” She pauses. “And I think about it when I’m in the South.”
The idea of the South inspires a profound ambivalence in her. Her father hated Alabama; her mother, who grew up there — in a family so poor that as a child she picked cotton — loves it. Now that Melinda has her job offers, she has to decide for herself. “Atlanta’s very progressive for the South,” she says, but one gets the impression that she’d prefer Jersey. Either way, as soon as they get rid of some of their debt, the Willinghams are going to buy a house, probably in a suburb. “I don’t want my kids to grow up in the city,” she says, shaking her head. “The teenagers in this area …”
But there’s still tonight, and, around 10:30, she’s treating a boy who banged his head on a chair at school and has been vomiting ever since. His mother is there, and so is his twelve-year-old sister, who’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “The Hardest Job in the World Is Being a Black Woman. “You’re here to write about a doctor?” asks the mom. “Which one? Her?” But this time it’s Melinda’s age that makes her position seem improbable. “I thought she was a nurse.”