During a time when Black women were not very present in the health care industry, Dr. Virginia Caine saw a path.
“My uncle was a physician in Arkansas and my father was the pre-med advisor of University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff,” she said. “I also had a number of cousins who were physicians, pharmacists and dentists, so a lot of discussions around the table revolved around health care when I was growing up.”
For Caine, working in the sciences felt like a clear next step. She knew it was possible because she saw it within her family. Still, that type of representation didn’t exist outside of her family. It still doesn’t. A 2015 study from the American Hospital Association’s Institute for Diversity and Health Equity found that just 11 percent of minorities make up executive leadership across the health care industry, even though a third of patients being served in various clinics and hospitals are minorities.
During her years of medical training, Caine didn’t let the lack of women and minorities deter her. As an undergraduate student, she spent a summer at Harvard University’s School of Medicine where she worked alongside a doctor and learned about what it took to treat infectious diseases. She left Massachusetts that summer knowing she wanted to work with patients and help treat their diseases.
While in medical school at State University of New York Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, she got the opportunity to work along Dr. King Holmes who became her mentor.
“He is world renowned for his work with sexually transmitted diseases,” Caine said. “It was under him that I learned about the Tuskegee Airmen being injected with syphilis. That affected those men and their families for generations and it made me want to do something about it because that’s how I was raised. When we see injustice happening, we don’t stay silent.”
Caine also noticed how much STDs affected teenagers and young adults. Knowing that many of these diseases were preventable, she threw herself into the work.
After medical school, Caine did her residency at the University of Cincinnati and then went to work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, where she served as a research epidemiologist studying HIV/AIDS, what caused the disease and potential cures. In the late ‘80s she got an offer to bring her research to Indianapolis for a joint position with Indiana University and the Marion County Department of Health (MCDH). She took the offer and became the director of the STD program at MCDH.
Thirty years later, she’s now the Director of MCDH and still teaches at Indiana University’s Medical School. During her tenure she’s established the first countywide HIV/AIDS integrated health care delivery system involving major hospitals, community health centers and social service agencies, as well as the first HIV dental clinic. Additionally, she’s served as the co-director for Indianapolis Healthy Babies Initiative where she worked with community leaders to decrease the Black infant mortality rate to the lowest level the city has ever seen. In 2017, BioCrossroads, a statewide initiative to advance and invest in life sciences, named Caine the Life Sciences Champion of the year for her work in public health.
Caine says she owes her success to mentors who believed in her as well as her believing in herself.
“You really need to know who you are, what your values are and what your commitment is,” she said. “Don’t let someone else tell you who you are. Follow your dreams, follow your aspirations and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.”
Virginia Caine, director, Marion County Department of Health