CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – When Marvella Ford was growing up, she did not see a lot of people who looked like her. And the people who did were suffering from disease and disability more often than people of other races.
Decades later, the medical researcher and scientist explained how differences and disparities helped her formulate her life’s work to become a healthcare leader and patient advocate.
Dr. Marvella Ford has been on a healthcare path for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up in Plattsburgh New York,” she said during an interview with News 2’s Carolyn Murray. “It was a population made up of mainly white people- there were some Native Americans, American Indians, and a few Asian American people. Most of my friends were white because that’s who lived there.”
But her curiosity was peaked by who was missing in her life.
“They all had grandparents. Most of them had all four grandparents and by the time I was born all four of my grandparents had already passed away,” she recalled.
She continued, “When I looked at them and I looked at myself, I realized there was a racial difference. I remember as a child thinking I’m going to find out and I’m going to help people so that when kids grow up, they are going to have their grandparents for a longer period of time.”
While Dr. Ford said her parents were brilliant, they were not academic scholars. But they made sure she and her brothers would be.
“I remember my father telling my older brother and me, ‘your job is to go to school and get good grades,’” she said.
And she did. Earning a scholarship and high marks at a world-class school Cornell University and then a doctorate at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
Years of training and research eventually brought her to the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina where she not only teaches medical students but also educates the public and puts access to care in neighborhoods – especially in rural communities.
“We are very pleased that we have a brand-new mobile health unit,” she said.
And that is not the only mobile unit Dr. Ford got rolling. She said the HPV Van will save lives because it offers the cancer vaccine.
“The van travels throughout the state. We work with school districts across the state to deliver the HPV vaccine,” Dr. Ford said.
Dr. Ford also created a program that targets African American men. SC Amen helps men understand prostate cancer, treatment options, resources for support, and follow-up care.
“In South Carolina, the prostate cancer death rate is two and a half times higher for Black men than for white men. That means there’s something we can do. We can make a difference.”
And she’s making a difference in the lives of high school students, too. SC Cure, or South Carolina Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience, has a record for directing minority high school students toward STEM education.
From classrooms to clinical trials, Dr. Ford is at the forefront of encouraging black and brown people to be their own health advocates.
“If people of color and other people across the community – rural residents – if we are not involved in these trials, then at the end of the day it won’t be clear how well those treatments will work for us.”
She went on to explain that because her mother died of complications of diabetes and her father of heart disease, she was vigilant about her own health screenings.
But in 2008, the doctor became the patient. She received a diagnosis that she did not expect – breast cancer.
“The cancer was detected at stage zero which was really a blessing. I received great care. I feel very blessed to work in an institution where there are so many specialists. After growing up in a very small town where it was difficult to access specialists, I don’t take it for granted.”
She continued, “It comes back full circle. So, it’s kind of maybe something that I didn’t have in my life, the grandparents, now other people will be able to enjoy their grandparents, their children, their spouses, for a longer period of time and it makes everything worthwhile. It makes all the late nights, early mornings, the weekend work, it makes it all worthwhile.”