September’s Empowering Cover Woman Mitzie-Ann Davis – Fulfilling Her Calling

From age five, Mitzie-Ann Davis knew she wanted to be a doctor. She fell in love with the idea of service and surgery very early on. “Any family member will tell you that I always said I wanted to be a doctor. I had these books that showed diagnoses that I would always read as a kid which was really kind of weird,” she laughs.

Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Mitzie-Ann and her family emigrated to the United States when she was 17 years old. Every summer as a child, she would visit her grandma, who lived in Philadelphia, and in 1997, her mother moved her and her sisters there permanently. “It was a wonderful childhood growing up in the Caribbean,” she reminisces. But the family wanted to be together.

Though she completed high school in Jamaica, she never took the SAT. So she repeated her senior year of high school in Philadelphia in order to prepare for the test that would get her into a good college. “I got to experience American schooling, which I’d always watched in the movies,” she recalls.

After graduation, she was accepted to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania on a full academic scholarship. (Her sisters followed in her footsteps and attended Swarthmore as well.) As part of her scholarship, Mitzie-Ann was given money to study abroad in the summer. Her research led her to a school in Mexico, where she stayed with a local family for the entire summer, immersing herself in the language and the culture. Becoming fluent in Spanish in such a way taught her a new level of learning and communication.

She went on to complete medical school at Temple University, her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Pennsylvania Hospital, and a fellowship of gynecologic oncology at the University of California San Diego Medical Center. And throughout her schooling, she continued to spend extended time periods studying in Latin America—six weeks in Lima, Peru, during her residency, a summer in Cuba working in public health, and a rotation in Costa Rica learning medical Spanish.

A practicing artist and potter during her undergraduate studies and medical school, Dr. Davis says she has always thrived in having a creative outlet using her hands, so performing the complex procedures required of her as a gynecologic oncologist (gyn/onc) was second nature. Becoming a surgeon was just a natural manifestation of her two passions, she says.

She chose gynecologic oncology for many reasons: “The complexity of gyn/onc—the surgical, the medical management is very complex—it always keeps me very intrigued. And most importantly, the patients I felt I could relate to more out of all the areas of ob/gyn. I can empathise with those patients at a very vulnerable point in their lives. I felt that I was able to bond with these patients.”

“Dr. Davis’ patients praise her for her warmth, as well as the confidence she instills in them,” says Catherine Hoffman, Manager of Oncology Operations at Piedmont Fayette. “They are facing one of the most challenging times in their lives and know that they have the right person fighting alongside them.”

Dr. Davis understands that when patients miss appointments or come in sad, “it’s not just them presenting that. They’re coming in with a lot of things. We have low-income patients who can’t just focus on their cancer—they’re thinking about how they can pay their bills and get their cancer treatment. Or ‘how am I going to do all these things and have someone take care of my children?’ I always remind myself that there is more to just a diagnosis and a patient exterior—that they come in with other issues. It helps me to treat my patients comprehensively and compassionately.”

“Dr. Davis was always happy and positive and always sincere,” says Fayetteville resident Jean Jones. “She is conscientious and zeroes in on the problem, but she is never down. She gives you hope, and that’s exactly what you need when you are knocked off your feet with a cancer diagnosis.”

Gynecologic oncology, as a specialty, is rare. Dr. Davis says that, aside from there being so few programs available (only about 44 in the country) and the competitiveness of getting into those programs, “not everybody wants to deal with cancer care and death and long surgeries. It’s a small society, but it’s a very vibrant society where all the physicians are really committed to women’s care.”

There has been a need for her specialty on the southside of Atlanta for a long time, and Dr. Davis was close to finishing her fellowship when she was contacted to join the Piedmont team. “I’ve always seen myself as a community doctor,” she says. “When I was recruited out of fellowship by Piedmont Fayette, they were equally committed to becoming a destination for gynecologic cancer care. And being on the southside, to me, is just an extension of how I envision myself as a doctor. I’m committed to the community. And this is a community that needed one.”

“It is always easier to treat gynecologic cancers when they are caught early. And that means listening to your body,” she stresses. For example, endometrial cancer is one of the most common gynecologic cancers she sees. “If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, don’t wait for months to get that taken care of. Go see your gyn right away!”

“As women, we are so used to putting other people first,” she says. She frequently hears patients explaining that they were busy taking care of their husbands or their jobs, or their own parents or kids. Or they say they have been experiencing symptoms or pain that was left untreated or, occasionally, that their primary doctor didn’t take them seriously enough. “Be your biggest advocate. Key into your body. If something doesn’t feel right, you need to get it checked out. That is the thing that can save your life and make a huge difference.”

“Preventative care is key,” she says, “and the number one risk factor for endometrial cancer, which is the most common cancer I treat, is obesity. So it’s super important that patients get on a weight management plan, and that we’re approaching this from a multi-disciplinary approach. Even after their diagnosis, most patients don’t die from a recurrence of their disease, but they die from obesity-related complications like heart disease and diabetes.”

Excess adipose tissue converts to estrogen that stimulates the lining of the endometrium leading to precancerous or cancerous lesions. According to Dr. Davis, evidence from a new study says that patients continue to gain weight even after they are diagnosed, “so even though there’s a scare and we tell them, ‘obesity probably contributed to your endometrial cancer,’ they sometimes, unfortunately, continue to gain weight, so it’s important for survival that a weight management program is incorporated.” At Piedmont hospital, Cancer Wellness has established a wonderful program that provides services for nutrition and intense exercise programs that help patients achieve their health goals.

Robotic-assisted surgery is one of the biggest and most recent advancements in the field of gynecologic oncology, changing the way patients recover from surgeries. There is less hospital time, less recovery time, and more pinpointed technique reducing risk of complications and side effects. Dr. Davis performs the most robotic-assisted surgeries at Piedmont Fayette, and recently the new da Vinci Xi robotic system was added.

Gynecologic oncologists are also using molecular profiling to figure out what gene defect they can target in the tumor itself. “We are trying to come away from blanket chemotherapy to look specifically at what your tumor needs,” she says. “We’re moving towards incorporating these new modalities of chemotherapy or treatment with traditional chemotherapy.”

Dr. Davis and her team strongly encourage their patients to participate in clinical trials, if they are eligible, “especially patients of color,” she emphasizes. “Patients of color are underrepresented in clinical trials. And for a disease process like endometrial cancer, black women have worse outcomes, they have lower survival, they are more likely to be diagnosed with a more advanced cancer, or a more aggressive histology.”

Dr. Davis was recently named one of the 2020 top gynecologic oncologists in the state by Georgia Trend magazine. “Piedmont Fayette is fortunate to have a surgeon as talented as Dr. Davis whose commitment to the community is one of many strengths,” said Steve Porter, CEO of Piedmont Fayette. “She is dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of her patients and makes a positive difference in every life she touches.”

As a board-certified gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Davis does a lot of speaking with the community, so keeping up with the most recent literature allows her to relay the most current information. Most recently, she spoke before the National Medical Association, the largest medical association in the United States representative of African-American physicians; and Black Health Matters, a national organization promoting health in the black community.

Dr. Davis strongly believes in the power of education and even took a year off between her undergraduate degree and medical school to be a middle school science and social studies teacher. While teaching in the Philadelphia public school system wasn’t her long term goal, she says that it honed her skills as an instructor, training her to adjust her teaching to different people based on their skill levels. “Teaching is something that I’ve always loved. Even during residency, I got a teaching award and I continue to teach now. Half of my calling, I think, is the education of patients.”

“I can never get bored because you always have to keep up with the literature. The surgeries are very complex and challenging. You have to go through an extra four years of training. I never have a dull day. Every day I get up and it doesn’t feel like work to me,” she says, “and I feel I’m truly blessed that I’m doing my calling. It doesn’t feel like a job.”

“I don’t take it for granted at all that I get to do what I love,” says Dr. Davis. “And Piedmont has been a really good partner in this as well. We started this practice from the ground up, and anything that I needed they helped me with, and I think that highlights their commitment to really growing this program and making sure that Piedmont Fayette is a destination for gynecologic cancers.”

Dr. Davis and her husband, Zenebe Woldegebriel, who is a nurse at Piedmont and currently working on his nurse practitioner degree, live in Peachtree City, where they are raising their two young children, Blen-Rose and Joshua. Balancing work and home is about choosing and managing your time, she says. “You can’t do everything all the time. You have to choose. You have to prioritize.” On her operating days she works long hours and her family is understanding of that; and on the days she’s not in the OR, she comes home early for extra family time playing outside and reading.

She is fortunate to have a strong family support system as her mom and grandma have moved nearby as well. “My mom was a working mom, and I certainly didn’t feel like I missed out on something because she wasn’t there all the time. I benefited from having a huge village that helped to raise me. My grandma was right there, as well as my cousins and my aunts and uncles.” And she strives to give her own children the same kind of upbringing. She and her family love traveling and hiking, and spend their free time cooking, singing, and watching documentaries together.

“I am here today because of my village. My husband, my mom, my grandmother… I want to give credit to them. I cannot do this alone.”

Each September, in honor of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Davis puts on a lecture series at Piedmont Fayette.Her next engagement will be a virtual Login, Lunch, and Learn on Thursday, Sept. 17 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. (People interested in attending the web conference should send an email to PFHRSVP@piedmont.org.)

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