Back in August 2000, when Dr. Lucille Perez was running for president of the National Medical Association, she was so much of an underdog that some of her own mentors were pleading with her not to run.
So when Perez won, the victory was all the more sweet because it was so surprising, and her success caused a vivid new set of great expectations to instantly take shape.
“My late uncle, Vernal Cave, had been president of the NMA when I was in college,” says Perez, a native of Brooklyn, New York, who moved to Washington, D.C., in 1991 to become associate director for the Office of Medical & Clinical Affairs at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. “We all went to his installation and it was amazing. He was a real hero in our family and in the medical community. To think that I was now in that position was just beyond anything I’d dared to dream.”
But Perez was about to wake up. Although she had been involved in the NMA, even chairing its powerful nominating committee, she had not taken the traditional route of a presidential hopeful, and she quickly learned that securing the popular vote had not made her a political insider. During her year as president-elect, she came to understand how that reality would impede her ability to move her agenda forward.
“I wanted to bring the faith-based community and the medical community together to address the issue of racial health and healthcare disparities in a major way. It was a unique agenda and it was going to be tough,” she says.
Making it tougher was the fact that the NMA was undergoing a radical shift. A few months before Perez took office in August 2001, there was a reorganization that left gaps in her administrative support. There were personal challenges as well. Recently divorced and helping to care for an ailing aunt and uncle as well as her two teenaged children, Perez was already operating on overdrive. Then, just weeks into her term, came the next hurdle: Sept. 11.
“The nation was impacted at every level,” says Perez. “At the governmental level, focus shifted to homeland security, unity, and patriotism. Anything that reflected our division as a nation, like racial health disparities, dropped way into the background. At home, I had a daughter in her last year of high school. All of this clearly impacted her and she needed me.
“I went into this [position] expecting to charge forward in a certain direction and it was obvious that the entire paradigm had shifted. But while people were reassessing their lives and priorities, I’d made a commitment to the NMA and I knew I had to see it through,” Perez, now the group’s immediate past president, reflects.
See it through she did, despite the challenges. The post required her to log tens of thousands of miles traveling to advocate for the issues that most impact the nation’s 37,000 black doctors and their patients. Now, even simple trips, such as the one-hour shuttle