Dr. Yolanda Lewis-Ragland, board-certified in pediatric and obesity medicine, minces few words when protecting children.
After all, Dr. Lewis-Ragland has lived and practiced medicine in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 for nearly two decades.
In one of the nation’s capital’s poorest and most traumatized communities, Dr. Lewis-Ragland has gained trust and respect from residents that other physicians often find elusive.
That respect and trust remain crucial as medical experts and providers attempt to give more access to the all-important COVID-19 vaccines many people of color hesitate to accept.
“We did a study and came up with the top reasons for hesitancy,” said Dr. Lewis-Ragland, a Children’s Hospital pediatrician and owner and CEO of Family Fitness and Wellness for Community Health and founder and president of Dr. Yolanda Cares Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on reducing health disparities in at-risk communities.
“Negative coverage about the vaccine was one of the reasons,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland reflected, sitting in a white executive office chair inside the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s (NNPA) state-of-the-art television studio in Northwest, D.C.
“One of the top reasons also was not understanding the rapid development of the vaccine and needing more clarity,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland explained.
“Community members didn’t understand, and they had no one who looks like them to talk to,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland continued.
“We need physicians of color having these conversations. I get all my vaccines done because my parents are asking me direct questions. Kids are telling me what they see on Tik Tok and online, so I’ll have the candid conversation.”
Dr. Lewis-Ragland, author of two pandemic-influenced books–“Navigating a Triple Pandemic (Volume 1),” and “Navigating a Triple Pandemic: Volume 2: COVID Virus and Vaccine Facts, Fiction & Fears”–said there’s a huge uptick in the number of Ward 8 parents receiving the vaccine.
“We actually vaccinate our parents onsite,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland remarked.
“When they bring their children in for vaccines, we ask the parents to get vaccinated. So we lead by example, and I believe we are going in the right direction because we are starting to employ the resources of the voices that are in the community.”
“When you see a Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett [Black immunologist] at town halls, when you see individuals like that having these conversations in the community, there’s going to be a positive reception.”
For much of the past few years, Dr. Lewis-Ragland has actively addressed issues like heart disease in vulnerable Black communities through her annual Heart-to-Heart Red Carpet Affair as a way of tackling the underlying issues contributing directly to hypertension, heart attacks, stroke, and death.
Though a native Washingtonian, Dr. Lewis-Ragland left D.C. at a young age and moved with her family to Seattle, Wash. She calls her story a tale of two cities.
She returned to D.C. to attend the Howard University College of Medicine.
The mother of three, and mentor to several youth organizations and trainees, Dr. Lewis-Ragland engages in community advocacy through medical missions and health fairs throughout the Caribbean.
She has dedicated her life’s work to providing excellent healthcare services, closing the gap of healthcare disparities and advocating for health equity in vulnerable populations and communities.
“My mother was interested in nursing, and I was a very curious young person with three older brothers,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland divulged.
“I wasn’t afraid of anything. But, growing up with boys, I felt if they could do something, then I could do it better,” she continued.
“When I was in 7th grade, we dissected cow’s eyes. No one wanted to do it, except me. I dissected 20 cow’s eyes, and I decided that I wanted to learn more about biology. I was a latch-key kid, and I saw [fictional television] doctors like Marcus Welby, Quincy, and Cosby and decided that I wanted to be in medicine.”
Dr. Lewis-Ragland worked in West Africa as part of the Peace Corps., and that experience opened her eyes.
“I’m here in D.C. because our nation’s capital, like third-world countries, needs help,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland said.
“When I came back from Africa, I realized that I didn’t have to go far to see health disparities. Many communities need that grassroots outreach, and I wanted to serve and live in the community, so I decided to stay in Ward 8.”
Dr. Lewis-Ragland said she chose to work at Children’s Hospital because of her love for kids. However, she said the U.S. must do a better job of caring for children.
She also decried the politicization of the COVID vaccines.
“We have parties who have decided we are now infringing on rights and freedoms when we ask people to vaccinate,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland said.
“It is preposterous. This is a public health issue. You have to protect the entire public because [the virus] is highly transmissible.”
Dr. Lewis-Ragland likened the debate over vaccines and wearing masks to driving.
“In your car, you have an airbag,” she offered.
“When deployed, the airbag stops you from serious injury or death. If it’s not there, you might die or seriously injure yourself. So, it’s not stopping accidents,” Dr. Lewis-Ragland emphasized.
“When people say that you may still get COVID if you are vaccinated, that is true. But you won’t get seriously injured, and you’re not going to die. When we talk about masks, the N-95 mask offers 87 percent protection against the virus. That’s like having that seatbelt on; it will keep you safer. You are less likely to die from impact because you have on that seatbelt. Social distance is like the traffic light; it keeps you from running into things.”