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Making Women’s and Children’s Health a Family Affair

Photo of Dr. Sharon Ashley smiling into the camera wearing a white coat over a red blouse.

Dr. Sharon A. Ashley speaks highly of her sister, Dr. Ann Ashley Gilbert-Biry, who is a pioneer in women’s health – but shares an impressive 30-plus year career of her own in pediatric anesthesiology.

When Dr. Sharon A. Ashley contracted strep throat as a teenager, she was forced to wait hours to see a doctor due to segregation in Florida.

“I never saw a doctor that day.”

She noted how her subsequent bout of rheumatic fever resulted in chronically swollen joints, a heart murmur, and heart valve disease.

Dr. Ashley’s experience alone might have inspired her career in medicine spanning more than three decades – but it was the shared interest of her twin sister, Dr. Ann Ashley Gilbert-Biry, that solidified her dedication to the field.

“We did everything together,” she said, including earning National Medical Fellowships scholarships for medical school.

Dr. Sharon Ashley (R) and her twin sister Dr. Ann Ashley Gilbert-Biry (L) in the lobby of UC Davis Medical Center (2017).

“We did everything together,” she said, including earning National Medical Fellowships scholarships for medical school.

Today, in addition to her position as a professor in pediatric anesthesiology at the University of California-Davis, Dr. Ashley chairs the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and has held committee and board positions in the California Society of Anesthesiologists, National Medical Association, Society for Pediatric Anesthesia, and the International Anesthesia Research Society. Dr. Ashley Gilbert-Biry is a leading obstetrics and gynecology specialist in the greater Orlando, Florida area.

“But we both were slow to complete our paths to medicine,” Dr. Ashley said.

After graduating from Lincoln University with a lower grade point average – but high MCAT scores – Dr. Ashley earned a post-Baccalaureate certificate from Pomona College and worked in multilingual medical transcription and radiology while her sister struggled to pass first-year testing at Thomas Jefferson University.

“I was a temporary secretary and because I had no paper strikeovers on the multisyllabic medical terms, the Chair of the radiology department became interested in my future employment with the department,” Dr. Ashley said.

“When he asked me what it is I wanted to do, I replied, ‘I want to go to medical school.’ He made a call for me to speak with the Dean of Hahnemann University School of Medicine the next day.”

This turn of events led the twin sisters to attend medical school in Philadelphia at the same time and eventually complete residencies together at Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles.

“Ann subsequently passed all of her national exams!” Dr. Ashley said. “And our National Health Service Corps goal was to serve together in central Florida.”

However, Dr. Ashley was pregnant when her sister committed to caring for migrant women working in the orange groves in central Florida.

“Still, having been raised to care for those who have less, I stayed in California to care for a predominantly Black population in Compton with a severe physician shortage,” Dr. Ashley said. “However, because we weren’t and still aren’t taught much about the business of medicine, I unknowingly earned an infraction from the Medical Board of California.

“The only thing I could do then was to pay my dues and gather more knowledge.”

Dr. Ashley therefore earned an executive master’s degree in public health from University of California-Los Angeles and an executive master’s degree in business administration from the Peter Drucker School of Management at Claremont University.

“I became a better academician, teacher, and administrator because of it.”

In fact, Dr. Ashley became a clinical professor in health sciences and the Associate Dean for graduate medical education at Charles R. Drew University Medicine and Science.

Today, as the only Black professor in her department at UC Davis, she said she continues to be inundated with calls from students around the country wanting to shadow her.

“And of the three students I mentor now – from Nigeria, Eritrea, and Sacramento – their concerns include feeling like they are the only people of color in their medical school programs,” Dr. Ashley said. “But all of them have recently matched into anesthesia at UC Davis and Stanford.”

Dr. Ashley said she also provides advice on residency considerations and subsequent employment.

“Investigate and pay attention to the details of where you might be working. Take a look at the business license, know who owns it, research the residency program rating by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education – and please, please have every single contract you’re being asked to sign reviewed by an attorney.”

Dr. Ashley said that because she, her family and her community benefitted immensely from NMF’s service-oriented scholarships, she also feels committed to improving inclusion and equity in health care from the top down.

“We must make it so there are more of us sitting at the table dedicated to making decisions,” she said.

“Once-a-month meetings aren’t going to cut it – we must work at this every day, starting with making more people aware of NMF and its incredible opportunities.”