Ashley Denmark is a family-medicine physician with BJC Healthcare. A black woman, she grew up in Jennings, Missouri, and at an early point in her life, her ambition to become a doctor sometimes felt out of reach.
“I wasn't always given the enriching opportunity sometimes, but I overcame that, and I am here today sitting before you as Dr. Denmark,” she told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. The physician joined Friday’s program to discuss the road to her career and why she returned to St. Louis in an effort to inspire minority children to follow their dream careers and “normalize success.”
She recalled times when a lack of money, educational resources and mentors led to her feeling trapped in regards to progressing in her career. She said being “aggressive and flexible” about her determination helped her stay on path.
“You know, becoming a physician is not a linear process,” Denmark said. “It's going to be a lot of ups and downs, no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, but you have to be flexible [about] how you're getting there and understand that you may have to go a different route to become a physician, and that's okay. And that's the part I want to normalize.”
She worked summers in the food and nutrition department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, volunteered in the basement kitchen and shadowed various staff – all of which confirmed to Denmark that becoming a physician was her true calling. In addition, she worked side jobs at CVS, Macy’s and a grocery store.
“Before getting into med school was the hardest part, because a lot of people just cannot fathom that I could get into med school. So I think that was the hardest part of my journey. But once I got into the medical field, I felt like people were more accepting of the idea,” she said.
She attended Spelman College, a prestigious, historically black women’s college in Atlanta, and earned an undergraduate degree in biology. From there, she moved around and attended different post-graduate programs at the University of Massachusetts, Harvard University, Tulane University Law School and Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.
She reiterated that being flexible about the path to achieving success is applicable for all career fields.
‘Is it a possibility?’
Denmark said her background of growing up in Jennings helps her relate to those she serves in her current practice.
“I always channel back to when I was growing up in those communities,” she continued, “and when a patient doesn't have money or when a patient is not compliant, I try to really delve into: Why are they not taking the medication? Why are they not showing up? Is it a transportation issue?
“So I really feel like my background and growing up in Jennings has really helped me become a compassionate physician and understanding – and [to] try to meet my patient where they are so I can better help serve them.”
She added that there is a need for more representation in various career fields.
“You can't become what you can't see – and it becomes very difficult,” Denmark said. “So it's very important that [people] see someone who is in these positions, in these roles, and that they look like them, because they [then] know it's possible.
“When they don't see it, they feel like, ‘Well is it really something I can do? Is it a possibility?’”
To help fill that gap, Denmark created a children’s book after her daughter, Olivia, wanted to know, “What does mommy do all day?'
“Through [those conversations] came this book, ‘Olivia’s Doctor Adventures,’ where [Olivia] put in my head, ‘Hey, you can write this book.’ And I'm like, ‘Sure, I'll do it,’” Denmark said.
“If you don't give children opportunities to have those experiences, see how wonderful it is to learn about science or math or any of the STEAM fields, then that will kind of carry with them [and] they may not have that interest as they get older,” she continued, “And so that's why I wanted to come in and create my book … to try to get them start thinking [that], ‘You know what, you can become a doctor.’ Let's start talking about that and having these conversations now.”
Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.