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Department of Neurology
Mayo ClinicVIEW PROFILE
Alyx Porter Umphrey, M.D. (I1 ’04, N ’07, NONC ’08), believes in giving back. When she was an undergrad at Spelman College in Atlanta, a Historically Black College and University, she received the Presidential Scholarship that covered her tuition, room and board. She didn’t have that kind of financial support during medical school. Together with her physician husband, they accrued $500,000 in debt during medical school alone. When they’d paid it off, she gave back to Spelman, establishing an annual scholarship for a premed student as well as a named endowed scholarship. Recently, she and her husband started a nonprofit organization, ElevateMeD, to support students from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine. They aim to prioritize physician workforce diversity, close the gap of financial inequity in medical education and empower the next generation of physician leaders. “Getting a medical education shouldn’t be a privilege only for the wealthy,” says Dr. Porter. “With 60% of medical students coming from families with incomes in the top 20th percentile, the cost of medical school education has become prohibitive. We need to encourage and support learners from diverse backgrounds and all socioeconomic ranges to create a diverse physician workforce that is reflective of the population served. We all deserve excellent and equitable care.” Dr. Porter Umphrey doesn’t stand out only in her philanthropy. She also is one of only three black women in the U.S. practicing neuro-oncology.
“During training, you’re surrounded by more support than you’ll ever have again. Be dedicated to doing all that you can to understand how you intend to use your career. What is the area that really peaks your interest? Who can help you get there? Figure these things out early, and work with your mentors to expand your network. It will serve you well once you’ve completed training.”
Medicine was the only career I ever desired. I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and, at that time, there wasn’t much diversity. I looked forward to watching “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights to see a family that looked like mine. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was the first image I saw of a black physician. Though fictional, it was my first inspiration for a career in medicine. Then, when I was in junior high, Dr. Ben Carson came to national attention for his work separating twins conjoined at the brain and wrote “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.” My dad gave me a copy, and I was further inspired and thought I might pursue neurosurgery. Both were early role models whose careers — one fictional and one real — inspired me.
Through community involvement, my dad met a black physician who had trained and was on staff at Mayo Clinic in Arizona at the time, Hollis Underwood, M.D. (I ’86, EMS ’87). He shared my interest in medicine and that we didn’t know any physicians who could help us understand the path. Dr. Underwood, a black woman and a mother, let me shadow her while I was in high school and provided my first real-life exposure to medicine and the excellence of Mayo Clinic.
After my undergraduate education at Spelman College in Atlanta, I completed medical school at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. During my third year, I realized that I wasn’t destined to be a neurosurgeon after becoming motion sick under the microscope. I did a pathway program at Mayo Clinic and was paired with Mike Harper, M.D. (I ’83, N ’86; Department of Neurology), and my interest in neurology and in Mayo Clinic was sparked. Mayo Clinic was the leading training program in the country, so I knew that if I wanted to be the best, I needed to be there in Rochester.
Pure inspiration. The entire city of Rochester seemed to be built around the desire to provide the highest level of care possible. The entire town was in alignment around the shared mission. So many people at Mayo Clinic in Rochester have dedicated their entire careers to Mayo. Their dedication to the organization is unparalleled. They truly live the mission.
When you put initiative and effort into something, people want to see you succeed and will join forces to help you achieve what you want to do. People really care about the collective mission and the organization.
I have had many:
I was recruited to Mayo Clinic in Arizona to build the neuro-oncology program in 2008. I coordinate the care of neuro-oncologic patients, specifically patients with tumors of the brain and spine, both benign and malignant, and provide a coordinated home for patients with neurologic complications from their systemic cancers and treatment. I started a multidisciplinary tumor board and created a monthly neuro-oncology case conference for resident education. I served as site principal investigator on multiple clinical trials and developed my own nationally enrolling trial about quality of life for patients with high-grade glioma.
My clinical research interests focus on improving quality of life of patients who have been impacted with brain cancers, including identifying improved treatment options, reducing fatigue, maintaining independence and autonomy, and improving access of utilization of known resources.
On a national level, I am the PI of the largest neuro-cognitive study to evaluate stimulant medication to abrogate cognitive fatigue in brain tumor patients.
During training, you’re surrounded by more support than you’ll ever have again. Be dedicated to doing all that you can to understand how you intend to use your career. What is the area that really piques your interest? Who can help you get there? Figure these things out early, and work with your mentors to expand your network. It will serve you well once you’ve completed training. There’s no better time to build your network, and you’ll be able to lean on it once you’re done with training.
In 2011 I co-authored a book, “Navigating Life with a Brain Tumor,” published by Oxford Press and sponsored by the American Academy of Neurology. Lynne Taylor, M.D., and I wrote it for patients and families as a step-by-step guide from the moment of diagnosis to the patient’s last breath. It’s a tangible, one-stop resource that educates, demystifies and empowers. I’m grateful to have been part of bringing comfort and peace to patients and families by providing them with this resource.
I also am a founding member and co-chair of Women in NeuroOncology (WIN), a subcommittee of the Society of NeuroOncology. WIN was established in 2018 to advance the careers of women in neuro-oncology.
My husband, Gregory Umphrey, M.D. (OR ’05, PMR ’08), and I met at Mayo Clinic in Rochester as residents. We moved to Arizona to start our careers — me at Mayo Clinic and him in private practice. Between us, we had about $500,000 in medical school loans, so the first couple of years were intense as we tried to find our footing without the support we’d had during residency and fellowship and as we faced the stress of repaying our debt. Although it was an intense time, it also was beautiful because we had our two children in 2008 and 2011. We received excellent training, which made the patient care piece part of establishing our practices straightforward. It took me quite a bit of time to develop my niche and figure out where I could make the most impact.
Greg and I launched ElevateMeD in 2019, but our vision and dream for it had been brewing long before that — since I signed to take out my first private loan for medical school. We were totally unprepared for the debt we’d taken on and wanted to create something that offered the kind of support we wish we’d had.
ElevateMeD was developed out of the need to elevate medicine to an ideal where the physician workforce racially and ethnically represents the community served. The cost of medical education in the U.S. has become prohibitive, distracting bright students from seeking a career in medicine. Medical students underrepresented in medicine face unprecedented levels of indebtedness, which stifles their future career choices. Sixty percent of medical students come from families in the top 20% in income. Getting a medical education shouldn’t be only for the rich. We need to support people from all socioeconomic ranges to ensure health equity and a diverse physician workforce. We all deserve excellent care.
By providing scholarship support for medical school, mentorship, leadership development and financial wellness education for underrepresented students, ElevateMeD aims to help its scholars become the next generation of physician leaders.
Our initial goal was to raise $100,000 to give away in scholarships in the first year. Within seven months, we raised twice that goal. We awarded scholarships to 10 students in 2020, including one at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. We hope to give another $100,000 in scholarships in 2021.
Our goal is that ElevateMeD scholars will one day become mentors in our program and, eventually, donors so that we’re able to create an endless cycle of support for medical students from underrepresented backgrounds. We look forward to the program’s growth and appreciate the reach it has had in a short time. We’re holding a virtual fundraiser on Oct. 3, where we’ll introduce our scholars, highlight supporters and talk about our successes.
Working on our nonprofit helps invigorate me. Having school-aged kids forces me to shift my focus off work. I multitask fairly well, but kids need your full attention.
Being a mom is a full-time effort and the aspect of my life that I put first. In addition to raising kids and keeping everyone’s schedules straight, I run our nonprofit, ElevateMeD and try to keep our puppy from chewing everything we own. I enjoy having Zoom calls with friends during the pandemic to catch up.
I could probably eat tacos for dinner every night.
Also, I’m one of only three black women in the U.S. practicing neuro-oncology and the most senior of them.
See past New Chapter stories here.