Charting Her Own Course: From Navy Flight Surgeon to First-Year Pathology Resident

While some of her peers in Ms. Bedoe’s biology class at Valley Christian Junior High in San Jose, CA, may have recoiled from the idea of dissecting a frog, 11-year-old Angela Markham embraced it. Now a first-year pathology resident at Montefiore Einstein, Dr. Angela Markham Baldwin credits the middle-school rite of passage with sparking her interest in medicine.

“I loved biology class,” she recalls. Dissecting the frog “got me interested in how form and function work together to make a living organism.”

Early inspiration

Envisioning her future, young Angela knew that she wanted to help people and decided to become a surgeon. She knew the road to reaching her goal wouldn’t be easy. No problem: She had two strong role models at home to encourage and inspire her.

Her mom, the first in her family to graduate from college, parlayed her passion for computers into a successful career at IBM. She started out as a programmer and rose to upper management, an unusual trajectory for an African-American woman at the time.

Her dad, also the first college graduate in his family, grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Troubled by the tensions he witnessed between the police and the community, he decided to become part of the solution, says Dr. Baldwin. He joined the police force and rose to the rank of sergeant, making his mark as a SWAT team member and hostage negotiator.

From both parents she learned discipline, singlemindedness, resourcefulness and courage. They imbued Angela with a passion for public service and the confidence to pursue her dreams.

A medical career takes flight

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in human biology, Dr. Baldwin enrolled at Howard University Medical School on a Navy Health Professions Scholarship. During her fourth year of medical school in 2009, a new and unexpected opportunity came her way: While on spring break in Florida, she met her future husband. They married 18 months later.

In return for underwriting her medical education, the Navy required that Dr. Baldwin serve four years as a Navy physician. Following a year-long internship at Navy Medical Center Portsmouth, in Portsmouth, VA, she served as a general medical officer at Naval Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, VA, providing acute and urgent care to the base personnel and their families as well as to prisoners in the brig.

Then came mandatory flight-surgeon training at the Naval Aeromedical Institute in Pensacola, FL. The rigorous program was designed to give trainees firsthand experience with the flight environment and the stressors affecting pilots that can lead to aviation accidents. Dr. Baldwin learned to fly planes (“They’re fun,” she says.”) and helicopters (“Also fun, but more challenging: they don’t like to stay up in the air.”).

Her next assignment: Navy flight surgeon at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, OK. There, the landlocked Californian served as a primary care physician ensuring the combat-readiness of the pilots and their crews, and as a consultant for aircraft mishap safety investigations.

Though only a junior officer, she was promoted to acting chief of medical staff. At the end of her service, she received the Air Force Commendation Medal for meritorious service.

Around that time, Dr. Baldwin began to question primary care as a career choice. “The primary care system in the U.S. doesn’t allow enough time with patients, so you often end up medicating problems rather than fixing them with good preventive care,” she says. She decided that research-focused medicine would be a better fit.

A different tack

After completing her military service, she was awarded an NIH K-12 Grant and was accepted to the clinical research fellowship program at University of California, San Francisco. Her mentor was Jacque Duncan, MD, a clinical ophthalmologist and retinal specialist who studies treatments to preserve vision. Assisting Dr. Duncan on an in vivo study of retinal (neural) tissue “was a revelation,” says Dr. Baldwin. It sparked her interest in neuropathology.

To further hone her research skills, while working full-time for Dr. Duncan she earned a master’s in public health at UC Berkeley, paid for by the GI Bill. Staying true to her deep concern for patients with limited access to quality care, she volunteered as an urgent-care physician at a free clinic serving homeless residents of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

At that point Dr. Baldwin wanted to find a medical discipline with good work-life balance. A friend from flight-surgery school, then a pathology resident, suggested forensic pathology. Specializing in forensic neuropathology, she realized, would allow her to marry her research interests with her desire to make an impact on public health.

Embracing Montefiore and the Bronx

Since Dr. Baldwin’s spouse, a pharmacist and youth advocate, is from Philadelphia, the couple decided to move to New York for her residency to be near his family and taste life in the Big Apple. She was attracted by Montefiore’s unique learning environment.

“I've always wanted to serve where the need is the greatest, where my efforts could have the greatest impact, so I value the opportunity to work in the Bronx,” Dr. Baldwin says, noting that the exposure to an ethnically diverse and underserved population offers her and her fellow trainees the opportunity to learn from a wide spectrum of pathologies.

She has high praise for the residency program. “The faculty is very approachable,” she says. “When you’re signing out specimens, you can sit down with multiple attendings and ask questions right there. It’s obvious that they all like teaching.” And her fellow residents? “They’re very collaborative. People go out of their way to help you. It’s pretty awesome.”

Resolute in her commitment to forensic pathology, Dr. Baldwin has elected the anatomic pathology-only track. A Latin quote on the wall in the morgue at Montefiore (pictured at right) “provides a frequent reminder as to why I chose forensic pathology,” she says. Translation:This is the place where death rejoices to teach the living. 

“The continuous exposure to autopsy coverage throughout our residency program can be daunting,” says Tiffany Hébert, MD, associate program director for anatomic pathology education. “Angela shoulders the burden seemingly effortlessly, with a cheery attitude, regardless of how daunting the caseload may be. She always remembers that there’s a human being and a family attached to every case we encounter.”

“When I think of Angela these words come to mind: kindness, tenacity, duty, leadership and joy,” adds Jacob Steinberg, MD, director of the pathology residency program. “She epitomizes the ethos of Montefiore and Einstein: communal humanism and personal empathy coupled with clinical and scientific excellence.”

Dream project

Meeting Dr. Barbara Sampson, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner, who came to Montefiore last fall as a visiting professor, has been a highlight of her residency training so far. When Dr. Baldwin mentioned her interest in doing research “with a public health angle,” Dr. Sampson put her in touch with Dr. Gail Cooper, Director of Forensic Toxicology at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).”

Under Dr. Cooper’s direction, Dr. Baldwin is studying the levels of cocaine and cocaine metabolites in the post-mortem brain, blood and vitreous fluid in cocaine overdose/toxicity-related deaths. “We hope to gain insight regarding the prevalence of cocaine-related deaths in the Bronx and the correlation, if any, between drug/metabolite levels in one tissue versus another, and which levels are more often associated with death,” she explains.

She’s currently in the data collection phase: poring over the toxicity files for every case handled by the OCME in 2017 and logging the quantity of drugs/metabolites found in the brain, blood and vitreous fluid. In December 2017, the original plan for her to work on weekends fell through because no staff member was available to give her access to the files. So, she spent two weeks of her vacation time at the ME’s office to get the job done. Problem solved.

The big picture

Looking ahead, Dr. Baldwin, an active member of Inspiring Women Leaders in Medicine, hopes to become a mentor and role model for young women dreaming of a medical career.

“I have so much more to accomplish before I would consider myself a ‘leader’ in medicine,” she says. “But as I advance in my career I feel it’s important to reach back and pull whoever I can up with me. I’ve had a unique journey so far and try to share my experiences and lessons learned with anyone who’s interested.”

Her advice to her future mentees:

“Don't put limits on your aspirations. Always keep the big picture in mind. You’ll have to be determined because there will be obstacles.”

“Be open to detours,” she adds. “Life rarely goes exactly as planned and it pays to be flexible.”

Dr. Baldwin speaks from personal experience. Early on, she imagined she would take a straight path from college to medical school to residency to a hospital or group-based practice. “I hadn't planned on becoming a flight surgeon, earning an MPH or becoming a clinical research fellow,” she says, “but I took advantage of those opportunities as they presented themselves, and I’m richer for those experiences. If I had rigidly followed my planned path I would have missed out.”

Please note: This profile of Dr. Angela Baldwin appeared in the Montefiore Einstein Department of Pathology’s Spring 2018 newsletter. Dr. Baldwin is currently in her second year of residency and was named Chief Resident, PGY2, in Spring 2019.