Women's History Month 2014 - She traveled the world, but her heart remained in the LowcountryTweet
By Mikie Hayes
By the time Delores Gibbs was 7 years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
But even at that early age, she was more familiar with medicine than many girls her age – she had been diagnosed with a heart murmur a year earlier.
Labeled a sickly little girl, she would sit in her room day after day reading books while the other kids played outside. She didn’t completely mind, though: she developed valuable study habits that would later help her in medical school, and no one asked her to do chores around the house.
Growing up on the family’s 24–acre farm in Moncks Corner played a large role in shaping the woman Gibbs is today. While they no longer farm the land, they still own and maintain it and identify with the experiences and values farming provided.
“I am very much an outdoor person. I love flowers. I’m still a farmer, really. I feel that farming is something that is in your heart and in your nature, not necessarily what you’re doing.”
Gibbs credits her mother and her love of that property for instilling in them many of the qualities she possesses today.
“I have five siblings,” she explained. “The first four were born and then came the last two of us. My sister and I played together and I can recall Mom giving each of us a plot of land.
Those were our gardens. It was our responsibility to keep our gardens in tip-top shape. I still remember how I took so much pride in my plot – not a weed or a footprint could be in it.”
Her inspiration for a medical career came from Walter Evans, M.D., an African–American doctor in Moncks Corner. Like the small–town doctor of bygone days, Evans treated everyone in the community. He made house calls and knew every patient by name.
“Dr. Evans had been in practice since the ‘40s,” Gibbs said. “He was a real family doctor. Mom had a very large flower garden. Whenever he could come to take care of the six children or mom or dad, he would spend time visiting and out in the garden. I admired him a lot, especially the work he did.
"He was my role model."
Her family was supportive of her aspirations, but it wasn’t something they discussed at the dinner table. Gibbs was smart and determined and though her sisters called her lazy when she didn’t help with the chores, all knew she would one day become a physician.
Her parents enrolled her in Mather Academy, a boarding school in Camden, to ensure she received the best high school education possible.
After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, Gibbs retuned to the Lowcountry to attend the MUSC College of Medicine. Gibbs was a serious student and concentrated on the workload in front of her.
“There was so much material, most of my time was spent studying. I really didn’t have time for socializing. I had two close friends whom I would go to movies with, but basically I studied. Plus, living so close to Charleston, I would go home and spend Saturday with my family and go to church on Sunday and drive back.”
Her family took great pride in the fact that she was attending the Medical College. “When I came home on the weekends, the older men in the community would always tell me how proud my dad was of me for being in med school in Charleston,” she said. That meant the world to her.
When she earned her M.D. in 1973, she was the first African–American woman to graduate from the program. Her humility pervades every aspect of what she has accomplished. “I was no one particularly special. Anyone could have done what I did. Certainly many women from South Carolina could have achieved what I did,” she said.
Her life became a whirlwind of travel and interesting opportunities after graduating from MUSC. Once she completed her residency in internal medicine at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she became certified in tropical medicine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research also in D.C., a prestigious Department of Defense biomedical research laboratory.
With this preparation and a desire to help those less fortunate, Gibbs joined the Peace Corps and became a medical officer. She was stationed in Sierra Leone, West Africa for two years and when later appointed chief of Medical Operations for the U.S. Peace Corps, she returned to work and live in Washington, D.C.
She traveled the world during this time as the Peace Corps was active in 55 countries.
She spent four years in that position and was offered the directorship of the Office of International Health at Charles Drew Post Graduate Medical School in Los Angeles. Soon however, the Lowcountry beckoned her home, and in 1986 she established a private practice in Moncks Corner.
“When I moved back to Moncks Corner, my family was so happy to have me back home. They didn’t like my being in Africa too much. It was too far away,” she said.
Her parents lived long enough to see her graduate from the College of Medicine, go through her residency and into practice. That is one of her greatest joys. The other treasures in her life are her daughter and granddaughter. Family is everything to Gibbs.
Gibbs is described by colleagues and friends as a very giving person who generously shares her time, talent and treasure in myriad ways. March 10 marks the fourth anniversary of the free clinic she opened in Moncks Corner. Twice a month, from 6 p.m. until everyone has been seen, Gibbs provides health care services to people without health insurance at no charge. As the only doctor involved, it’s not unusual for her to see upward of 20 people a night. She does this in addition to her full-time work in her practice.
Friend and colleague Thad Bell, M.D., said, “Delores is an excellent role model for all women and particularly for African–American women. She was the first woman to graduate from the College of Medicine and that in its own right says a lot about her perseverance. She’s had a very interesting professional career as it’s been a global one. She’s touched people not only here in the Lowcountry, but also in Africa. She has a profound interest in delivering health care to those who really have need of her expertise.”
Throughout her life, Gibbs has had a soft spot for children and was responsible for organizing many community activities. For several years, she helped sponsor a theater camp in Berkeley County for children 7 to 9 years old. She felt the skills they would develop by acting and working on set design would serve them in all areas of their lives.
She also started a tennis camp for children in rural areas of St. Stephen. “Rural kids don’t get an opportunity to learn or play tennis,” she said. ”Tennis builds teamwork and encourages responsibility. It’s more than just a game. We were able to use the game to teach them life skills they may ordinarily not be exposed to.” She sponsored that camp for eight years and is proud of the fact that the children were provided a healthy lunch and snacks every day and taught about nutrition.
Her love of children and desire to help them stems from treating children who had few advantages in life.
“I think my experience working oversees in the early 80s solidified my concern for children, seeing the physical handicaps of the children and the illnesses like polio, measles, mumps from one country to the next. I decided that I would not spend my entire career in a developing country, but I would try to do for children whatever I could when I got back home.”
Gibbs says it’s her inner spirit that keeps her going, and she stays busy constantly. She is a member of social sororities and involved in work with several organizations. Recently, she learned that there were students who weren’t able to pursue their dream of becoming a doctor at MUSC because of finances and decided to establish the Rose Delores Gibbs, M.D. Endowed Scholarship to create a permanent endowment for under–represented minority students.
Terry Stanley, associate dean for development at the College of Medicine, said, “Delores has an enormous heart. The establishment of this scholarship is but one example of her selflessness and how much she does for others.”
While medicine has played a significant role in her life, much more than health care makes her tick. Gibbs is currently learning to speak Spanish and always has CDs and small books placed within reach. She traveled to Cuba last fall and loved it. She especially enjoyed listening to people speak, but wasn’t quite ready to try her Spanish out on them. She takes courses at Trident Technical College, plays the piano and longs to paint. An avid collector of eclectic art, her home is filled with paintings, carvings and textiles. She refers to her collection as the gallery.
From a little girl with a heart murmur to a beloved physician with a giving heart, Delores Gibbs uses her great capacity for love to make life better for others.
Editor’s note: In honor of National Women’s History Month, The Catalyst will feature women who make a difference at MUSC.