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Dr. Lynette Charity in her Chatham yearbook photo, 1974

Dr. Lynette Charity in her Chatham yearbook photo, 1974

 

The Healers

One of a Kind

 

After 35 years as an anesthesiologist, Dr. Lynette Charity ‘74 decided she wanted to become a different kind of healer.


 

“Everything just seemed to flow. Any time there seemed to be an obstacle, it worked itself out. It was my hard work, but maybe it was meant to be. No one else in my family did this. I guess I’m just one of a kind.”

 
 

Nearly a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibited school segregation, Lynette Charity forged her mother’s signature on a permission slip and became one of the first black students to attend a white high school in Virginia. Her attendance was a ‘test’—white administrators didn’t believe black students would succeed. Lynette defied them with ease, maintaining a 4.0 GPA and racking up accolades as a National Honor Society scholar and a National Merit Scholar semi-finalist. But when the time came for Lynette to apply to college, it still didn’t matter to her guidance counselor: “She was white, I was black. She told me that college wasn’t for me.”

Lynette got home from school that day fully prepared to give up on her dream of becoming a doctor. Her mother met her in the doorway: “She told me that a woman had called from a college in Pittsburgh. Her name was Peggy Donaldson and she wanted to talk to me about Chatham,” Lynette recalls. Her family couldn’t afford to send her for a visit so Peggy sent Lynette a bus ticket to get to Pittsburgh.

Lynette rode a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh and by the time she left that weekend, she took a four-year academic scholarship home with her. At Chatham, her life changed radically—she lived with a white student, Cathy Cusack ‘74, and the pair became Chatham’s first interracial roommates. She ate pizza, lox, and bagels for the first time. Despite her biology major, she read Shakespeare in Dr. Frances Eldredge’s home on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

Chatham became her new home: “Go back to Virginia? No, there was nothing for me there,” says Lynette. In the summer she picked up shifts dog-sitting, house-sitting, and nannying for professors. Once, in need of furniture, she knocked on the front door of Gregg House and asked Dr. Eddy, then Chatham president, for bedroom furniture—he obliged.

 
 

“My brain worked really well when I was at Chatham. I didn’t have to worry about putting on makeup or joining a sorority. I didn’t have to worry about anything other than getting up and going to my science classes.”

 
 

After excelling on her MCATS, Lynette received medical school interviews at Harvard and Tufts. She was accepted to Tufts where she specialized in anesthesiology and met her husband, also a doctor. Lynette’s medical career took her all over—California, Washington, Virginia, Arizona, and even Dubai. It also resulted in six years of military service after she received a fellowship in neural anesthesia from the U.S. Army; she worked her way up the ranks to lieutenant colonel.  

After thirty-five years in anesthesiology, Lynette thought, “I’m sixty years old, maybe it’s time for me to find a new gig.” She took stock of her talents—singing, talking to people, making them laugh—and got proactive about the next step, taking acting lessons, working with a comedy coach, and joining a group called Toastmasters, a nonprofit devoted to improving public speaking skills.

Thanks to Toastmasters, she found her new niche, winning multiple district championships and back-to-back world championships for her compelling speeches. On stage, she told her origin story, how she had defied all odds to become an anesthesiologist. Afterwards, people would ask to take photos with her, encouraging her to become a professional speaker. “I was like a rock star,” she laughs.

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“This is my second calling. When I’m up on the stage, I use all the elements of what I spent seven years training for. I do comedy, I do improv, I do it all, and it’s really fun.”

When a medical school in Portugal contacted Lynette and asked her to come speak, it was the beginning of a breakthrough. Lynette instructed the young doctors to stay true to their core selves, “The key is to not allow your environment to change your basic core identity. A lot of people start out with great values and then lose sight of them because someone says they need to look a certain way or do a certain thing. Suddenly they’re not happy because that’s not who they are.” When she returned, she was contacted by a physician about giving talks at hospitals and from there, the gigs kept rolling in: “All of a sudden I was going from Maine to Virginia to Arizona…and I was getting paid!”

Today, Lynette speaks primarily to doctors and works to destigmatize mental health issues within the medical community. “People say, ‘Why in the world are you doing this?’ And I say, ‘Because I can. It’s time for me to give back,’” she says.


Catch Lynette’s keynote address as the 2019 Distinguished Alumna Award winner at Chatham’s
150th Anniversary Celebration Weekend on October 10-13.

 
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