When Dr. Aruna Arora became president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama earlier this year, she didn’t mince words as she gave her acceptance speech before a large crowd of Alabama doctors. She chose phrases that she rarely hears from medical leadership:
Arora is only the fourth woman to serve as Medical Association president out of more than 150 past presidents, and the first Asian-American. Alabama’s Medical Association is the central governing body for physicians in the state and wields lobbying power at the state capitol.
But the state’s most powerful and visible group of doctors hasn’t always been a voice for the state’s least visible patients. Arora spoke about those who fall through the cracks in the healthcare system, including people of color and rural patients.
“It is hard to help those that we cannot see,” she told the crowd, “and it is hard to help those that we cannot understand because of our own implicit biases and our inaccurate cultural competencies.
“Who we are as an organization has changed over the last several years. As the practice of medicine has changed over the last decade, so must this organization.”
Arora is a 46-year-old neurologist in her hometown of Huntsville, Ala., where she is co-director of Crestwood Medical Center’s ALS Clinic with her husband, also a neurologist. She’s a second-generation doctor – her father is a pediatrician – and a mother of two.
“Health equity is a big passion of mine,” she told Reckon. “I feel like our state has so much to reckon with, historically. We have so many different groups in our state, whether it’s somebody who is disabled, or who identifies as LGBTQ, or lives in a rural area – people who feel like they’re not the mainstream voice.
“The mainstream has enough advocates. We have to make sure someone is there to help get everyone to where they need to be.”
Family of immigrants
Arora was born in India to parents who grew up in small farming communities. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 6 months old, and her father went to medical school in Boston. The family moved around until Arora was 10 and they settled in Huntsville, where her father opened his pediatric practice.
She remembers, as a child, walking through the mall with her parents and seeing her dad’s patients and their families approach him, excited to say hello or express gratitude. Watching those interactions, she said, showed her how vital it is for a doctor to make personal connections with her patients.
As physicians in the Medical Association struggle to reach Alabama’s vaccine-hesitant communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arora said it’s even more clear how necessary those personal connections are. That’s how doctors can break down barriers between patients and the treatments – or vaccines – they need.
“There are all these myths out there and so many patients who have a lot of mistrust,” she said. “It’s our role to meet everybody where they are, without judgment.”
Nearly 90 years ago, the medical association gave Alabama a statue of 19th-century Montgomery physician J. Marion Sims, who had come to be known as the “father of modern gynecology.” But in recent years, a more complete history has emerged: Sims honed his techniques by experimenting on Black enslaved women, without their consent and often without the use of anesthesia.
Sim’s statue still stands on the grounds of the state capitol. A state law prevents its removal.
But this year, under Arora’s leadership, the Medical Association gave financial support to a new 15-foot monument to the “Mothers of Gynecology,” created by Montgomery artist and activist Michelle Browder. The sculpture honors three of the enslaved Black women who were subject to Sims’ experimental surgeries and whose names were Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey.
Arora said the decision to support Browder’s work was an easy one.
“She is doing incredible things with historical reckoning and I think this was a beautiful way to support that process,” she said.
And it was one tangible example of what happens when there’s more equitable representation in the rooms where decisions are made.
“My role in the Medical Association, for me, starts in the boardroom, sharing different perspectives and being the person who can work with everyone for the greater good,” she said. “I feel like I’m a unifier. That’s the skillset I have, to work with different people, because every group has a strength.”
At a recent board meeting, she said, she’d been “nervous” to share a different perspective on an issue. But then she watched as board members from different backgrounds and with differing opinions move toward consensus.
“There were members whom I never thought would have come around to agree on some matters I found important to shed light on this year,” Arora said. “I was so taken by it that I was moved to tears for the first time in a board room setting.”
Alabamian, through and through
Even as she spoke about addressing historic health inequities during her speech to the Medical Association, Arora also told the crowd about her love for her home state: “I am an Alabamian through and through, proud to be from this state and of this state.”
But pride, she told Reckon, shouldn’t mean a staunch defense of the status quo. Alabama, like much of the South, has a longstanding history of ranking near the bottom in many measures of health, including rates of chronic conditions like heart disease and obesity.
“This is what makes people want to be leaders, makes people want to get up and do something when they feel like there’s been no change,” she said. “You’ve got to feel empowered, like ‘this is my home and we can do better.’ Our state is relying on all of our leaders to move us forward.”