It was a kind of destiny that the Blackstock twins would end up doctors. To hear them tell it, they are following in some pretty formidable footsteps: their mom's.
"We were able to witness firsthand part of our mother's journey," Dr. Uché Blackstock, the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, said. "Just being raised in poverty in Brooklyn, not having a lot of opportunities, but with hard work, fortune and good luck, she was able to kind of escape her circumstances in a way. But afterwards, she came back from Harvard Medical School and really was committed to working in her community."
The sisters credit their parents, Dr. Dale Blackstock and Earl Blackstock, an accountant, for the smart and dedicated women they would become; raised in Crown Heights, in a home filled with love, they say, by parents who put education and service to others, first.
“Education was something that was definitely emphasized,” Dr. Oni Blackstock, the founder and executive director of Health Justice, said. "We went to school just like any other child, but our mom often gave us workbooks to do. And even at, like, our slumber parties, she would give us and our friends workbook problems to do as well."
They graduated from Stuyvesant High School, and like their mom before them, Harvard Medical School. When their mother died of Leukemia at just 47 years old, her daughters knew they would carry on her legacy.
"The reality is that medicine can be practiced everywhere," Dr. Oni Blackstock said. "There are wonderful health care providers everywhere. And for me it was really important to go to the Bronx, with large Black and Latino communities, to take care of my patients who are living with HIV, diabetes, high blood pressure."
Uché Blackstock would become an NYU professor and an Emergency Room physician. Oni focused on the HIV epidemic in New York City, where more than twice as many Black and Latino men are living with HIV than white men, with far worse rates for cisgender women of color. She was appointed assistant commissioner for New York City's Department of Health, and still treats patients in Harlem Hospital's HIV clinic.
"Even though we have effective treatment, effective prevention, available, people still lack access," she said. "And, again, it's because those other social determinants of health, like housing, employment, other social supports are not there for everyone."
But the sisters' battle for health equity reached a new level of urgency in March of 2020, when COVID came to New York City.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw Black, Latinx, indigenous people being the ones that were most impacted by COVID," Dr. Uché Blackstock said. “Not just health wise, in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but also economically. They were more likely to be the ones to lose their businesses, less likely to have jobs where they had paid sick leave or health insurance."
They took to the airwaves, to podcasts, anywhere their voices could be heard to get the message out: this pandemic could devastate Black and brown communities.
And when the vaccine became available, they saw that fear, and the clear memory of the cruel and terrifying Tuskegee experiments, were keeping their neighbors from taking the shot. For Uché Blackstock, that often meant taking her mission to the streets, becoming a trusted messenger for people in the neighborhood who had questions.
As the fight against COVID-19 eases, the Blackstocks have once again broadened their advocacy for health equity, each with their own organization battling the systemic racism plaguing the health care system. And, says Dr. Uché, there is still so much work to be done.
"All the issues that were preexisting in the pandemic have gotten worse," she says. "So, yes, we hear a lot about the Black maternal mortality crisis because, you know, it's just so incredibly horrific. But also there are other horrific facts, like Black men have the shortest life expectancy of any demographic group. We also know that Black and brown communities are the most likely to be uninsured or underinsured."
And Dr. Oni Blackstock adds, “We don't have universal health care, we don't have a social safety net and all of these factors are contributing to Americans doing much more poorly than their counterparts in other countries."
Still, they say, their most important job is mother, and they share the fears so many Black parents feel, fears that have nothing to do with medicine, fears they try to combat, in part, with a list of daily affirmations Dr. Uché Blackstock tapes to the bathroom mirror.
"I have two little Black boys and Oni has a son as well," she says. "And they get a lot of messages that they are not worthy. So I want to make sure, in this home, it's love, it's affirmation, it's kindness and that they know who they are."
And they celebrate even the smallest of victories that come with serving their community.
"When you come into a room and someone says, ‘Oh my gosh, you're my doctor,’ and that smile appears across their face," Dr. Oni Blackstock says, "Yeah, that's like the best feeling, it's the best."