In celebration of Women in Medicine Month, McGovern Medical School and the Office of Alumni Relations will highlight five of its accomplished women alumni throughout the month of September.
Booker T. Washington once said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” For Vivian Porche, MD, ’85, the triumph over her obstacles has led to not only success in her career, but for her family as well.
Porche summarizes her life with the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” In a portion of the poem, Hughes writes,
“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’on,”
Professionally, Porche is the first female, African American faculty member in the history of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to reach the rank of professor. Personally, she has been married 36 years to her husband, Henry, and has raised a wonderful family, her two sons, Henry III and Troy, and her daughter, Bobbi, who graduated from McGovern Medical School in 2018 and will follow the same path her mother took more than three decades earlier.
Porche’s interest in medicine was sparked after the death of her grandfather from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Initially, she set out to become a surgeon to try to help others survive cardiovascular disease. However, after a rotation in anesthesiology, she realized that profession suited her better as a marriage between the professions of surgery and internal medicine.
“In the operating room, surgeons don’t always have the opportunity to pay attention to the medical part of diseases,” Porche said. “As an anesthesiologist, I have to pay attention to those. I enjoy meeting new people, learning about them, and making them feel better.”
Porche, who ironically says she’s scared of the doctor, prides herself on being the “momma” of the operating room. Her fear of needles, and seeing the white coat, allows her to share a more personal bond with her patients and treat them as she would want to be treated.
“I did a fellowship in pediatric anesthesia and cardiovascular anesthesia, so I enjoy acting silly with the patients to make them feel better,” Porche said. “I’m very empathetic to my patients. I am a Christian, and I let everybody know that I’m praying for them, no matter what religion they are, because we’re all brothers and sisters.”
Porche compares her motherly love to June Cleaver, the maternal character on the hit show “Leave it to Beaver,” she watched as a child. She remembers Beaver’s mother in her dress and pearls, ironing and making sandwiches.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I want to be a doctor, but I still want to be a mother,’” she said. “I wanted to be able to do something where I can fix breakfast for the kids in the morning, and I erroneously thought that anesthesiology was the way I could go for that. No way. I was always trying to figure out how to put all that together.”
As an anesthesiologist, an easy day for Porche can span more than 10 hours. Many days, Porche is on call into the late hours of the night, and occasionally she spends the night at the hospital without leaving for another five or six hours the following day.
Often times when she found herself having success at work, she says she would feel guilty that she wasn’t putting more time in at home, and vice versa.
“It’s very tiring, but it’s very rewarding,” Porche said. “You have to give quality time to your family, even if you can’t do it all of the time, and you have to make sure it’s undivided. I guess I must have done something right; I’m so proud of my children.”
Porche’s dedication to both her career, and to her family, has helped lay the groundwork for Bobbi’s success in her young medical career. In her early days, Porche dealt with the institutional biases that come with being both a female and an African American physician, whether dealing with the occasional colleague who thought she didn’t belong in the physician’s lounge, or with patients who may mistake her for a nurse.
As a first-generation physician, instead of having a guiding force like many of her classmates, she was left to learn some of the intricacies of medical education on her own.
“Of course, when I came, they were not used to having someone like myself,” Porche said. “I had to collaborate with a lot of people, and I had to talk with a lot of people. A lot of my peers knew which projects or societies to get involved in, and I’m happy now that my daughter is coming behind me. I can say, ‘Hey, she knows already.’ She’s not as hesitant as I was about going after things. I’m happy that I’m able to help her with perhaps more opportunities than I had when I was coming through.”
In addition to her other children, Porche uses that same approach with adolescents who are interested in a career in medicine. She remembers being raised on the mantra of, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and believes it’s her duty and calling to give back and encourage the next generation of physicians.
Porche mentors through a variety of outlets, including her church, Jack and Jill of America, and even her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. She also travels to middle schools around the Houston area and presents her anesthesiology themed lecture, “Passing Gas for Cash,” to young girls with an interest in science and math.
“I want them to see that medicine can be fun,” Porche said. “It’s not just boring, and it’s not just for old farts. It can be fun and exciting. I’m happy to do it, because people need somebody to get them encouraged.”
Despite how much she lectures, Porche says she’s always blown away and humbled when students reach out to her for advice after viewing one of her presentations online, or looking up her information on the internet.
“I’m always trying to show others whenever I’m around that there are little brown girls that grow up to be doctors,” Porche said. “I want to give back to people. I want to be one of those folks that has a picture on the wall, where when a little girl of color comes through all wide-eyed, and bushy-tailed, and looks on the wall or in the magazine and sees somebody that looks like her.”
In just over three decades, Porche has earned the right to have her picture on the wall. She’s beaten the odds and broken barriers to be successful and to allow her children to learn from her success and earn success of their own.
Now in her 31st year, Porche was recently honored by the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at MD Anderson with the Distinguished Service Award for exemplary clinical care, contributions to clinical research, and commitment to education and mentoring.
For 14 years, she was the inaugural director of the Proton Therapy Center at MD Anderson and served as the chair of the anesthesiology section of the National Medical Association for two years. An innovator in her field, Porche developed a procedure to provide general anesthesia for children undergoing medical and diagnostic procedures without a tube to keep them from experiencing pain.
“It has not been easy,” Porche said. “Other people have told me that I make it look easy, but somewhere in there I know that if it were not for a very strong faith protecting and taking care of me, I would not be here. I just kept my head down, did my best, and made sure what I did counted for something.”