NASHVILLE, Tenn. Aleta Simmons, MD’s path to the medical field was lengthy.
“I’ve been in school a long time,” she quipped.
All told, she spent nearly two decades in higher education and medical training, traveling to five universities in three states. Each year, save one, was an unending push forward to earn her degree and increase diversity within her chosen field.
Her one and only pause was the result of a traffic accident, which sidelined her just before she could complete her last stretch of training.
‘No black doctors in a small town’
Dr. Simmons grew up in West Kentucky. Mayfield was a small community with roughly 10,000 citizens, and Simmons’ graduating class comprised of less than 90 students.
“We didn’t have any black doctors in Mayfield, and no specialists,” she recalled. “Often, there are no black doctors in a small town.”
There was clearly a need, she thought, and one day, she hoped to fulfill it.
‘Why study all those animals?’
Simmons’ interest in medicine dates back as far as grade school. It did, however, evolve as she got older.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she said. “I’ve always liked science. I wanted a microscope for Christmas when I was in fourth grade.”
She altered course, however, after visiting a local doctor while in high school. He asked what she hoped to be after finishing her education, and she told him she hoped to be a vet.
“He said, ‘Why study all those animals when you can study just one?’” Simmons’ remembered.
She laughed, then added, “That’s when I changed my mind.”
After graduation in 1999, Simmons attended Alabama A & M University in Huntsville and, four years later, earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology. She then returned to West Kentucky and earned her Masters in Organizational Communication from Murray State University after another three years.
In the latter half of 2006, she headed north to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale for its Medical/Dental Preparatory Program (MEDPREP), then moved on to Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in 2008. There, she finished her medical degree in four years and began her intern year at the Loyola University Medical Center doing internal medicine.
In 2013, she began dermatology training at Case Western Reserve University/University Hospital Cleveland Medical Center. She was on track to complete that last phase of training by 2016.
Unfortunately, that’s when the accident happened.
“It was May 2015,” Simmons recalled. “Someone was distracted by using their phone and hit me from behind.”
Her injuries forced her out of residency from 2015 until February 2017.
“I spent that time in physical training and receiving other treatments to get back a new sense of normalcy,” she said. “Thankfully, I was able to return and finish my training.”
‘People from small towns everywhere’
Now at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), Simmons hopes she’s playing an important part at increasing diversity in the medical field, which she felt was so lacking in her childhood.
“We see patients from small towns everywhere,” she said. “Mississippi, rural Kentucky, rural Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama.”
She plans to continue working toward more diversity and inclusion in medicine. “I’ve been able to help with mentoring younger people who want to attend medical school, and I’d like to help more in that area.”
‘Closer to home’
When asked why she came to VUMC, Simmons acknowledged there were personal reasons as well as professional ones.
“I was looking for something closer to home,” she said.
Nashville is roughly a two-hour drive from her hometown of Mayfield, and she tries to go back whenever possible to reconnect with friends and family.
(There’s also a 20-year high school reunion on the horizon.)
“One of the reasons I’m not in a smaller town, though, is I like the education and camaraderie of an academic institution,” she said.
Given its geography and standing in the medical field, VUMC offers Simmons access to both.
In addition to enhanced diversity, Simmons’ interests also include general dermatology, skin cancer prevention and detection, surgical and minor procedures, lasers and cosmetics.
“I really like helping teenagers with their acne,” she noted. “I know a lot of people think it’s just a phase, and kids will grow out of it, but there can be a lot of scarring.”
She hopes to find a way to provide free dermatology care and skin screenings in Mayfield someday.
About the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
Founded in 1999, the Alliance bridges the institutions of Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Its mission is to enrich learning and advance clinical research in three primary areas -- community engagement, interprofessional education and research -- by developing and supporting mutually beneficial partnerships between Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the communities they serve. Through community engagement, the Alliance serves a large community of stakeholders including surrounding universities and colleges, community organizations, faith-based outlets and community health centers. Its interprofessional education enhances students' interdisciplinary understanding and improves patient outcomes through integrated care. The research conducted provides access to experienced grant writers and materials supporting the grant application process and facilitates grant-writing workshops.