New Bedford’s Dr. Patricia Andrade on race, gender, medicine and her ‘fix-it mentality’

Patricia Andrade, MD, says she brings her problem-solving skills — what she calls her “fix-it mentality” — both to practicing general surgery and to her board work for SouthCoast organizations. That characteristic apparently stretches back to her high school years, when her senior yearbook said she “likes helping people solve their problems.”

After graduating from New Bedford High School in 1979, Patricia went on to Wellesley College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in the pre-med track. She earned her medical degree from the Brown-Dartmouth Medical Program, and completed her residency in general surgery at Rhode Island Hospital. Dr. Andrade is board certified with the American Board of Surgery, is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and is a member of the American Society of Breast Surgeons.

Fresh from her residency, Dr. Andrade established her practice in New Bedford in 1995, went to work for Southcoast Health in 2010, and for the last five years has practiced at Morton Hospital, where she is chief of surgery, as well as at St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River. 

Dr. Andrade served on the New Bedford Board of Health from late 1995 to last month, much of the time as chair. She counts among the accomplishments during her tenure prohibiting smoking in public places, fluoridation of city water, updating massage and body art policies, and initiatives advocating for healthy eating in public schools.

She has given her time and talents to the boards of the Cabo Verdean American Medical Society, New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, Bristol Community College, and others.

The YWCA Southeastern Massachusetts presented Dr. Andrade the Yvonne M. Drayton Award for volunteering to do free breast and cervical cancer screenings. She was named The Standard-Times’ SouthCoast Woman of the Year in 2000.

On July 2, Dr. Andrade will celebrate another accolade as she serves as grand marshal of the 50th Cape Verdean Recognition Parade, one of New Bedford’s most popular and significant events.

New Bedford Light: Your New Bedford High School senior yearbook listed your ambition to become a pediatrician. How did your interest shift to surgery?

Dr. Patricia Andrade: [As a teen], ‘pediatrician’ was the only kind of doctor that I knew anything about. I knew nothing about any other physician. And I liked kids and I used to babysit when I was young, and so that just seemed like the natural thing.

I’ve always known I wanted to be a physician since I was in fifth grade. When I went to college and applied to medical school, obviously that was what I wanted to do. … 

The way medical school was organized at that time, you did your two classroom years, and then in the second two years, it’s all in the hospital, learning on the job. We had to do six weeks of pediatrics, six weeks of psychiatry, 12 weeks of surgery, 12 weeks of medicine, and OB/GYN. …  When I did [the surgical rotation] — and this was at Rhode Island Hospital, so there was the trauma service — I liked the pace. Every day was different, you never knew what was going to happen that day. And I liked the immediacy of surgery, where you say OK, you put together your findings and you say ‘Here’s what I think is going on, let’s prove it, and take care of it.’

So when I did pediatrics, I hated it. Everything took a long time to figure out and it just didn’t jive with me at all. I didn’t like the pace. … I was like, ‘Oh, shucks, I can’t possibly be thinking I want to be a surgeon’ … I was really conflicted because I was like, I love it, but I don’t think I have that kind of personality. I mean, apparently I do have some bit of that personality, that very blunt, up front, you know, to-the-point kind of thing, and I think that definitely was what appealed to me, too. So it fit perfectly and I quickly abandoned the pediatric thing … and then went on to apply for surgical residencies.

NBL: You’re a general surgeon with special expertise in breast surgery. Women of color — Black, Hispanic, and Latina — experience significant disparities in breast cancer outcomes. What can be done to counter that?

PA: Well, it’s multifactorial. So it actually starts way back in education. There aren’t enough women of color who are encouraged to go into the health field and to go into medicine in particular, or surgery, whatever, into medical training. When you don’t have enough providers of color for people to feel comfortable, then patients don’t feel like they have a voice. They don’t feel like they’re well represented.

And so … because they don’t seek preventative care, by the time they [see a physician], things are usually fairly far down the road.

It’s a historic problem with people of color and health care. There are all these factors — and some of it is access, too. Truly, in the city of New Bedford, there are no primary care doctors with their ZIP code in the city. They’re all on the outskirts. Their offices are in Fairhaven or Dartmouth or Westport. But primary care doctors in the city of New Bedford, outside of the [community] health center, I don’t think there are any, which is bad, because it becomes an access problem. So when patients don’t have fair access … it’s too obstructive in their lives to try and seek care. So they end up presenting at a later stage, and later stages don’t do so well.

In addition, there are significant racial biases that occur in the office in medicine. And those biases create inequities in treatment plans for patients of color. That happens all the time. So there’s an assumption that people of color aren’t going to understand or just this assumption, like, well, you know, ‘I don’t need to treat them with the same amount of diligence as I treat a person of non-color.’ And that’s a reality and that happens all the time, and it’s really infuriating when I see it happen. So there’s that other element of bias that goes on constantly. Patients of color are not afforded the same recommendations that patients of non-color are.

NBL: And there’s an element of research as well, right? Not as much research is done focusing on women of color.

PA: Well, that’s true. But I don’t think that research changes the treatments that would be afforded people of color. There are some subtleties, yes, in terms of high blood pressure and diet, and you really need to look at what kind of diet people of color have that is different, that may contribute differently to their health problems. But when it comes to other kinds of treatment, specifically cancer treatments or even cardiac treatments, those I don’t think research specifically in people of color would make a huge difference. It’s really the biases that happen in the office setting that compounds the delayed presentation of people of color, and it’s really horrible. It’s a horrible problem.

NBL: Bristol County, and New Bedford in particular, has had a rough experience over the 2½ years of the pandemic. What do you foresee for the region as the pandemic grinds on?

PA: I think when it comes to COVID what it means for Bristol County and our South Coast region is that we can’t let our guard down. We can’t just be complicit and we really have to keep persisting in getting people vaccinated. You know, in a lot of communities outside of this area, they’re reaching 70-something, 80% vaccination. They can relax a little bit. But I think for us, we have to keep that message going.

You might recruit five more people to convince them to be vaccinated; every five counts to that magic number of 80%. So I think for us, it means that we have to be diligent and be really honest about what our numbers are doing. … But also just keep hammering the message. Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated.

And looking to the state for assistance for us, specifically, because you know, the state took away some funding for COVID, I think it was across the state, but the onus is on us to continue to say that we are in a different situation than some other parts of the state and we need to continue getting some assistance from them. …. Because we can’t let people think that it’s going to be OK, that it’s over, because it’s not … It’s still a very fluid problem. And in SouthCoast, we have to just keep our foot on that pedal.

NBL: There’s a new president and CEO at Southcoast Health, after the departure of Keith Hovan. What advice would you give to the new boss, Dr. Rayford Kruger?

PA: Well, you know, I left Southcoast five years ago for a number of reasons. It was not something I wanted to do. I’m from New Bedford. I used to say, ‘I was born in St. Luke’s Hospital, and I’m going to die in St. Luke’s Hospital.’ … I think what happened (at Southcoast) was you have people making decisions about a health care industry who aren’t really thinking about the bottom line, which is not a financial bottom line, it’s a patient-care bottom line.

When you shift to a financial bottom line, you are making decisions that are going to poorly affect the patient bottom line. So I think, unfortunately, they didn’t acknowledge or they didn’t respect the importance of having excellent, caring people, whether they’re nurses or allied health professionals or even cafeteria workers, and physicians. They disregarded the value that every single one of those kinds of people provide to an organization. They just overlooked it or they just ignored it. And so when people feel devalued, they leave. …

My advice to him would be to really recognize what’s important in a health care organization in providing good quality, caring care to patients. It’s not just about making money in health care. It’s people’s lives, and I think they lost sight of that. 

And it’s sad because when I first came to St. Luke’s, it was in transition. A lot of the older doctors were retiring, so we had a whole influx of a lot of new physicians and a lot of new nurses and the hospital was really functioning at a very high quality level. And people cared. The nurses, the housekeepers … Everyone cared about what they were doing, because they felt like somebody cared about them.

So it was a great place to work. It was a really special, unique place because there’s nothing more important than trusting as a physician that a nurse is going to take good care of your patients when you drop them off from surgery or even prepare them for surgery, and that takes people who care, and that takes people who feel like they’ve got skin in the game and that they matter.

NBL: Did you come directly from medical school to New Bedford?

PA: From residency, yes, I did. I finished residency in July 1995, and I started my practice in September 1995. Things just kind of fell into place. Initially, when I was in training, I was going to do surgical oncology, but that was going to require a fellowship and it also would require me working in a tertiary center like a university, and I didn’t like academic surgery at all. So I decided I would come home and practice.

One of my mentors in Rhode Island directed me to Dr. [J. Greer] McBratney, who was a longtime, very well respected surgeon in New Bedford. … So I went to see Dr. McBratney. I said, ‘You know, I don’t have a rich uncle. I don’t have a lot of money. But I want to practice here.’

So he was kind enough to let me use his office. I paid him a little bit of rent and my mom was my secretary for the first six to nine months of my practice. We knew nothing about running a practice, but everybody — all the other colleagues, their secretaries — were very helpful in helping us learn how to run a practice, how to make appointments, how to do billing, and all of that stuff.

So my first few years, I shared an office with Dr. McBratney, and that was a godsend. It was a wonderful experience because it gave me a reputation right at the beginning. People felt like ‘Oh, well, if he put you in his office, you must be really good.’ … It gave me huge validation. … I was actually in private practice for 15 years — solo private practice, I should say.

NBL: Have you encountered discrimination during the course of your education and your professional life? 

PA: Of course. … Even in college. I went to Wellesley College, and there was a lot of subtle sort of racism in the academics for women of color there. 

There were a couple of specific incidents, but it’s constant. It’s a constant, subtle experience that I’ve learned to live with … I don’t pay much attention to it anymore …

Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s a gender thing or color, because I present with both issues. Especially as a surgeon. There aren’t many women in surgery, never mind women of color in surgery. … I’m the first of a whole host of things. When I was applying for residency — this was in the late ’80s, early ’90s — I had to specifically look for residencies that were women-friendly, because most surgical residencies were not. …. And so the color-friendly thing, that doesn’t even enter into the equation, because there’s almost no such thing as color-friendly. At Rhode Island Hospital, when I started residency, the first woman had just finished. I think I was maybe the fourth woman to finish residency at Rhode Island Hospital — the first woman of color, for sure, and the third person of color. And this is 1995. …

I’ll be honest. I had a really hard time during the whole George Floyd problem because it made me recognize how much racism I’ve encountered. … It made me really think about it. And it was very difficult. It still is difficult for me to talk about, because most of [racism] you just kind of push back and you try to push it into an unconscious place, in order to survive, in order to keep going. But the George Floyd thing forced me to really start seeing differences and it was really hard. … Racism is something you just learn to exist with, unfortunately. You can either become bitter and nasty because it’s such an ugly thing to have to deal with constantly, or you have to learn to put it in a place of resolution or existence. But it never resolves. It’s very complicated.

NBL: You went on a medical mission to Cape Verde in April. Please tell me about that experience.

PA: It was this group that formed [during] COVID, the Cabo Verdean American Medical Society, and it’s a group of Cape Verdean American physicians. We’re all American-trained physicians, of all specialties: medicine, surgery, psychiatry and OB/GYN. 

It was our first trip, because again, we formed during COVID in 2020, over Zoom — multiple meetings over Zoom, over the last couple of years. We organized this trip as an introduction of our organization to the country, to the health care providers in Cape Verde. We did a lot of education of the surgeons. We did some clinical work. There were different teams: We had a surgical team; we had a GYN team; we had a mental health team; and we had an internal medicine team. 

So all the teams sort of had their own agenda, even though we all had one agenda to get acquainted with the health care providers and the health care system in Cape Verde. It was very remarkable, and it was really very fulfilling for all of us … because most of us were strangers in our organization. Outside of Zoom, we had never met in person. It was a very unique and wonderful experience.

NBL: The 50th Anniversary Cape Verdean Recognition Parade is coming up July 2. Was it a family tradition for you to attend the parade? You’ll be grand marshal — how does that make you feel?

PA: Well, I’m very honored and very excited about being the grand marshal of the Cape Verdean Recognition Parade. I am a second-generation Cape Verdean American. All of my grandparents were born in Cape Verde and immigrated here in the early 1900s.

My daughter and I have always marched in the parade, for the last I can’t even tell you how many years. So it is an important part of our regular traditions …

The Cape Verdean community is part of me. And the parade goes right by my grandmother’s old house. 

It’s an important recognition, the parade itself, because it recognizes the community in New Bedford, it recognizes the independence of Cape Verde, which is July 5th, so it has a lot of significance to it for many reasons. It’s a way of making sure that each generation recognizes the tightness of this community and recognizes and understands where we all have come from, because that heritage, we carry it with us all the time. And so being a part of the parade is an important example of that, it’s an important remembrance of all that. …

For me, it’s a huge honor. I’m really excited about being chosen for this important event for our community, for the city, and it’s not even just local — it ends up being televised all over the place. So it’s actually really huge.  

NBL: You served on the New Bedford Board of Health for 27 years, and have given your time to the Zeiterion and Whaling Museum boards, among others. What drives your impulse to give back to your community? 

PA: It’s not a conscious thing, but I like to use my knowledge and I like to learn new things. It’s a way that I can learn new approaches — personally, for myself — but also get to know other types of people and accomplish something.

I think as a surgeon, I think by nature, we always need to be doing something and fixing something. So, that sort of personality of identifying a problem; knowing how to sort it out, analyze it; using facts, using knowledge, using whatever the tools you have; and come up with a solution and fix it, is personally what I get from being (part) of these organizations.

I have a long list of other boards I’ve been on all these years. I was in the YWCA for many years, their president, and the YWCA is a place really close to my heart, because I was the youngest board member, when I was in high school. That had a big impact on me because they sent me to the national convention when I was in high school. It was the first time that I actually could see that a body of people can make a change. They can work as a huge group together, identify a problem, come up with a resolution and a decision, and that made a big impact on me.

At that time, the apartheid thing was a real problem and organizations were trying to decide what side of the social argument they were going to stand on. And the YWCA voted that year to ban using any Nestlé products because Nestlé had a lot of money invested in South Africa. And I remember that distinctly because it was this very robust argument, discussion, and then they came to this decision. ‘This is what we’re going to do.’

So I think a lot of why I get involved in things is that fix-it mentality, that enjoyment I get in fixing things. ‘OK, here is a problem. How can we make it better? How can we resolve it?’ And I think all of these different organizations that I’ve been in, that’s pretty much what I end up doing is trying to improve it, trying to move things forward. And I get a lot of enjoyment from that. … That’s, I think, what drives me to be involved. …

Wherever I am and whatever phase that I’ve been in, I have always gotten very actively involved in fixing something or changing something for the better for everybody else.

NBL: Well, that’s interesting, too, because in your high school yearbook, it says something about solving problems for people.

PA: So I guess it’s been in there all the time. That’s really funny. … I guess, you know, you’re always the same person even though you grow up. There are some parts of your personality that are imprinted from the very beginning.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.