Growing up in the Carr Square neighborhood’s Vaughn Projects, Dr. Annessa Blackmun recalls that finding her calling in life came from a combination of attending a great elementary school, and being “lifted up” by close family and friends. After attending medical school in New York and New Orleans, she came home to St. Louis to practice medicine in a more holistic way to help city residents focus on disease prevention instead of disease management. She notes her heart is ready for the Next NGA West project and that it represents a historic opportunity for healing and investment in her community like never before.
What are some of the events in your childhood that helped influence you to be a doctor?
Growing up in the Carr Square neighborhood I attended the best elementary school in the world, Jefferson Elementary School. The faculty there made me feel important, valued like I was a star. This concept was built into the school’s daily practices and curriculum. I was repeatedly told that I could achieve and that I would do well because I was gifted to do so. Everyone from the principal to the ladies who prepared our lunches made me and my fellow students feel that we were destined for greatness. I truly saw it and felt strongly that my community was coming together to lift me up. Everyone pitched in and it wasn't just focused on me. I saw my teachers provide clothing and sometimes food to students and families that were having a hard time. Teachers picked me up and dropped me off at gymnastic events so that I could participate. I could go on and on, but that experience was a lifelong lesson in the value of community that north St. Louis city residents taught me at an early age.
Who were some of the people in your life that inspired you to pursue a medical career and how did they motivate you?
Close family members suffering from chronic disease was my call to action and the primary motivating factor. I had two grandmothers who suffered from different manifestations of diabetes. One of my grandmothers had a below-the-knee amputation and it changed the trajectory of all of our lives. She was fun and adventurous, but because of her medical condition, she wound up all but trapped in her home.
My grandfather also battled cancer, and living with them, I did whatever I could to help. Many of their healthcare providers would remark on how attentive and helpful I was, and I was constantly encouraged by them to consider pursuing a medical career.
Of course, I was just twelve years old and I didn’t know what medical specialty I could do I just knew that I wanted to be helpful, relieve pain and heal. I knew that I could help others heal and that was so powerful for me at that age I just knew it was what I wanted to do as long as I was breathing.
What other events shaped your decision to come back to St. Louis and build a practice in your hometown?
Through timing and circumstances my path followed natural disasters or trauma. I wanted to go to places where I could be of service. I decided to continue my graduate studies in New York City after 9/11. I moved there to pursue podiatry at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. I enjoyed going to school in Harlem and the sense of connectedness and community during that time was unparalleled until I moved to New Orleans, right after Hurricane Katrina.
Again, I was there because I wanted to help. While in New Orleans I realized that healthcare was missing out on something very important: the focus should be on disease prevention, not disease management. Patient education needs to start long before they find themselves in the operating room. Prevention and education are key to healthier outcomes.
During my time in New Orleans I realized the similarities that city shares with St. Louis and that I needed to come back to St. Louis to start practicing medicine in a more holistic way. I also realized that it was vitally important to live in the community where I worked. I wanted my life’s work to serve a greater good, and that requires being able to relate to my patients environment, provide them a tangible user-friendly service, be a good listener, and most of all ― be available.
What keeps you motivated and focused to stay the course and continue making a positive impact on where you grew up?
It's all I know to do. I use my gifts, talents, and resources to help out in the way that I am best able. I often think of those ladies that prepared our lunches back at Jefferson Elementary, how they made us laugh, provided us a good meal, smiled at us and told us to do our best. That is all I am doing. I am encouraging and reminding as many as I can that they still have the power to do their best.
You have received noteworthy local recognition with your selection to the University of Missouri St. Louis Neighborhood Leaders Fellow Program and the Regional Business Council's Leadership 100 Young Professionals Network program. In what ways do these programs help you improve the quality of life in the community that you serve?
For me, everything is relational and about community building. I participate in programs to meet like-minded individuals. I try to support businesses that support communities and support families and initiatives that benefit the greater good. I also do my best to share information that I receive, and I spend a great deal of my time volunteering to support the work and vision of others. In my mind that is how we all can grow. We need to be informed, we need to share information, and we must act collectively to have a greater impact.
Do you think that the Next NGA West project will help bring about positive change in the St. Louis Place neighborhood and the Old North community as a whole?
A positive change can be achieved when all stakeholders voice their desires and are listened to. All sides have to give a little. We have a shared destiny. Those who live in Old North and St. Louis Place want to live there. They want to be a part of all the great things that are planned for this part of our city. The NGA project really has the whole world looking at them and represents an opportunity to invest in an area in the world that has been blighted.
If development plans can be balanced with the expectations of residents in and around the neighborhoods around NGA, this investment will see history being made. It will attract people to St. Louis because of opportunity and innovation. My heart is ready for this. My neighborhood and community deserve investment. We deserve to see, share, feel and experience it.
Do your friends, neighbors and patients share your outlook about the Next NGA West project?
Opinions are split. Many people remember the many times big development did not benefit people of color and those lacking in support and resources. I like to think differently in my approach to the potential that building NGA’s western headquarters can bring. The world is watching St. Louis and I believe that the time is ripe for healing and investment in this area like never before.
The views presented are those of the participant interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or NGA, or any of their components. No endorsement is expressed or implied.
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