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■ A L U M Na Profile

Is There a Doctor in the House?

by Masarah Van Eyck

A s the first black woman and only

the sixth African American student
to graduate from the University of
Wisconsin School of Medicine and
Public Health (SMPH) in 1975, Ada M.
Fisher, MD, MPH, has made a career
out of forging new paths in her quest to
help people.
A passionate physician, she has
devoted her working life to community
medicine as well as public health
administration, motivated by the In her quest for a seat in the U.S. Congress, Fisher calls for an affordable healthcare system with
conviction that all citizens deserve access responsible tort reform, less expensive drugs and an emphasis on preventive medicine.
to high-quality and affordable healthcare
within the free enterprise system. affordable healthcare system with at Martin Marietta Energy Systems,
In the past decade, Fisher has even responsible tort reform, less expensive Inc. (now Lockheed Martin) in Oak
taken her politics to the polling booth, drugs and an emphasis on preventive Ridge, Tennessee; medical director of
making runs from her home state of medicine. (For more, visit Fisher’s Amoco Oil Company as well as manager
North Carolina for Republican seats Web site at or of medical policies and practices for
in both the U.S. Senate and House of Amoco Corporation; and a Veterans
Representatives. Although she has not “The reality is that with war, Administration occupational health
won to date, undeterred, she’ll try again education and health entitlements, services director. Through it all, she
this year for a seat in the U.S. Congress. you’re not going to get more services continued to see patients.
Hoping to represent the North from the government,” Fisher says from “I was always involved in a lot of
Carolina 12th Congressional District, her home in Salisbury. “Primary care hands-on care,” she says. “One of the
Fisher capitalizes on her medical alone is just not going to cut it—this is problems is that people who go into
background in her campaign slogans, about dis-ease in society.” administration too often don’t have
prompting voters to “Get a Doctor in Fisher should know. Since her earliest that practical, broad-based hands-on
the House” and pronouncing her “10- years in medicine, she has confronted experience.” For Fisher, it was the
Step Prescription” platform as “Good for forms of social dis-ease in both rural and hands-on work that drew her to public
What Ails Us.” corporate America. In her career she health in the first place.
And not surprisingly, her platform, has served as the detoxification director Having returned to her home state
which emphasizes job growth and for substance abuse for a 16-county after a residency at the Family Medicine
national security, also includes plans for catchment area at John Umstead Program, an affiliate of the University of
serious healthcare reform. Paramount Hospital in Butner, North Carolina; Rochester in New York, Fisher worked
among them is fashioning a more industrial physician for the Y-12 Plant for two years in rural North Carolina,

Spring 2006 21
Fisher to be Featured But it wasn’t Fisher’s medical career
that first taught her to reach out to
at July Reunion her larger community. Growing up in
Durham, North Carolina, as the daughter
Ada Fisher, MD ’75, MPH, will be
of a Baptist minister, she learned early on
the special guest speaker at a reunion
of the African American alumni of the the importance of family, community and
School of Medicine and Public Health service to others.
this summer. She also knew that she would have to
Organized by Rev. Ronald V. learn to see beyond her familiar world
Myers, MD ’85, the reunion will be and extend her vision. And so, after
held in conjunction with the UW earning a bachelor of arts degree from
Department of Afro-American Studies. the University of North Carolina in
Several events are scheduled for Greensboro, Fisher moved to Wisconsin
Thursday through Sunday, July 20-23, for medical school (thanks, in part, to
2006. Cornelius Hopper, MD, an African
Fisher will speak on Friday in the American neurologist at UW, who helped
As a second year medical student, Fisher took
Health Sciences Learning Center, the notes in the medical microbiology laboratory. recruit her to Madison).
school’s new home. Tours of the new “It was as far away from home as I
building will be held, and current in part to help pay off her student loans. could get. I knew I needed to broaden
African American medical students Serving as the chief medical officer and my experience base,” she says. “UW was
will be on hand to greet returning medical director for the Plain View looking for black students, and I wanted
alumni. Health Center in Greenevers, North to be a doctor. It was a decent trade-off.”
A concert featuring the Carolina, with the National Health The transition wasn’t always easy. In
Experimental Improvisational Black Services Corps, she was the only physician addition to the shock of encountering
Music Ensemble (EIBME) is planned doing obstetrics in a county of 50,000 a new culture, Fisher’s father and
for Saturday evening, July 22, residents. It was during this service grandfather died during her first semester
beginning at 7 p.m. in the Union obligation that she witnessed firsthand away. What’s more, her first-year studies
Theatre at Memorial Union. The the desperate state of healthcare in rural proved to be a challenge—especially for
concert will honor Jimmy Cheatham, areas—and the isolation that can make one who struggled to see what she now
former UW professor of music, and
such areas seem like less than attractive calls “the big picture” in medicine. She
Jeannie Cheatham.
places for physicians to locate. wrestled with gross anatomy, offering
The reunion will kick off a fund-
“That experience helped me to see that she was “petrified of dead folks, even
raising campaign for the Wisconsin
that there are many people who are not though my brother runs a funeral home.
African-American Alumni Center in
receiving medical services who could be “I was struggling every day to keep
Madison. The $10 million project
would house a performing arts center,
if the money was spent differently,” she up, so I’d return at night,” Fisher recalls.
living space for historically black says. She was moved to earn a Master “And I tell you, there is nothing more
fraternities and a history center. in Public Health degree from the Johns frightening than those anatomy labs at
Hopkins University School of Hygiene two in the morning, with those rows of
and Public Health (now their Bloomberg cadavers in tanks. Every little sound was
School of Public Health), and entered unnerving!”
health services administration. She Furthermore, Fisher says, she found
recently was able to apply some of those it highly ironic that racism could exist
public health lessons offering medical in Madison, known to be a bastion of
assistance in Mississippi after hurricanes liberalism, while small communities
Katrina and Rita. beyond the capital, where she spent

■ Ada M. Fisher, MD ‘75 , MPH

Spring 2006 23
a good deal of time, could be more “They were delightful people,” she
receptive to minorities. says of Hansen and Brown. In fact,
But in the midst of these challenges, it was partially Fisher’s wish to visit
there were individuals who recognized with Hansen that brought her back to
her abilities and tenacity—and reached Madison last July to attend the 30th
out to her. reunion of her Class of 1975.
Among them, Fisher names June Fisher also drew inspiration and
Osborne, MD, now a national medical got encouragement from UW cancer
leader, who then taught virology and had researchers who were prominent
sat on Fisher’s admissions committee. nationally during the 1970s. These
When Fisher’s grades faltered, Osborne included Charles Heidelberger, MD,
took her aside, and together they worked who invented the cancer drug 5-FU, and
to find solutions. Nobel Laureate Howard Temin, MD,
Not only did Fisher’s grades steadily who discovered RNA-DNA polymerase.
improve, but she also began the clinical Looking back, it is clear that both
portion of her education, where she the challenges in Fisher’s medical
could really excel. “I’m a people education and her early clinical
person,” she explains, “so it was then experiences encouraged her to serve
that I got some idea of how it all hangs as an advocate for others—whether
Fisher’s account of her summer externship
together.” patients, fellow black students, veterans spent in Baldwin, Wisconsin, appeared as the
Working with patients gave Fisher or the multitudes of corporate employees cover story in the journal The New Physician.
the opportunity to do what she did and common citizens she has reached
best—care for people in distress. as a health administrator. She regularly
“Coming from life as a preacher’s kid, I receives letters from former patients
could deal with life and death—I’d sign who have benefited from her care, and
up for the cancer services when others she dotes on pictures of the babies she
didn’t, for example.” delivered who are now grown.
Similarly encouraging for Fisher were Fisher says that though she had
her summer externships. She spent the challenges in medical school, on balance
summer following her freshman year in the experiences were life changing and
the small town of Baldwin, Wisconsin. enriching. “Wisconsin was pivotal in my
The following year, the school’s Family intellectual growth and I will always be
Medicine Club asked her to share grateful and appreciative to the people of
her experiences with fellow members Wisconsin for giving me, an out-of-state
who were about to embark on similar student, a chance to fulfill a dream.”
externships. The address was adapted for Fisher has been grateful since the
use in The New Physician journal, with beginning.
Fisher’s portrait appearing on the cover. “The first money I made after
The summer externships were graduating from medical school I
arranged by pediatrician Mark Hansen, spent on a lifetime membership in the
MD, and with the monetary support Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association,”
of community benefactors Mr. and she says. “I always wanted to be a doctor,
Mrs. Wayne Brown, who were aware of and Wisconsin gave me that chance.”
Fisher’s financial constraints. Thanks to
them, she happily worked every summer
following a handful of patients through
their pregnancies.