Ashley Suah, one of the country’s only Black female transplant surgeons, promotes education and equity

Ashley Suah
University of Chicago Medicine's new kidney and liver transplant surgeon, Ashley Suah, MD, is one of just 13 Black female transplant surgeons in the country.

As one of just 13 Black female transplant surgeons in the United States, Ashley Suah, MD, understands the significance of her role.

Black Americans are the largest minority group in need of an organ transplant, yet they only receive a fraction of the transplants performed, federal data shows. Historic inequities in preventative care and the donor selection process, among other problems, have fueled the gap.

It’s why Suah has been on a dual mission since joining the University of Chicago Medicine faculty in October 2023. She is driven not only to be an outstanding kidney and liver transplant surgeon to all people, but also to foster strong relationships outside of the operating room.

“I want to make sure the community has access to us, as their care team. People should feel empowered to ask questions about their health and recognize if they might have liver or kidney disease,” Suah said. “When patients or family members come into the hospital, I want them to feel comfortable, to be familiar with different treatment options and to understand what’s going on with their bodies.”

For Suah, progress starts with conversation around diseases — and divides — that disproportionately affect Black people and their likelihood of needing an organ transplant. She visits community centers and churches on Chicago’s South Side to provide education about kidney and liver health as well as the lifesaving value of organ donation.

Her presence, she hopes, helps build trust in doctors, hospitals and the transplant process.

As the only Black transplant surgeon at UChicago Medicine, Suah brings a level of comfort and trust to the hospital’s Black transplant patients, many of whom say they are surprised to see that their surgeon looks like them. Patients and their families often say to her, “We’re so proud of you,” “Thank you,” or “Can you talk to my daughter about a career in medicine?”

“Being a Black woman in surgery and being able to connect on a deeper level, culturally, is very powerful,” Suah said. “It’s a blessing.”

‘A surgeon who cares about you’

Growing up in Florida, Suah’s engineer father, speech language pathologist mother and linguist sister all encouraged her pursuit of a medical career. She was one of just 14 Black students in her 300-person class at Indiana University’s School of Medicine. As soon as Suah started her surgery rotations, she realized how few Black and female doctors surrounded her.

“The workforce didn't really match the patient population that we were caring for, which sometimes doesn’t matter, but often it does,” Suah said.

Suah was drawn to the transplant field for the unique complexities of each case, the teamwork involved, the technical aspects of the operation itself (which she describes as “beautiful”) and the lifelong relationships that surgeons develop with their patients.

Seven years of residency at UChicago Medicine exposed Suah to diverse mentors, colleagues and patients, which inspired her to return after her fellowship and continue her career.

“We take care of a very special patient population at UChicago Medicine,” she said. “My love for people is why I became a doctor and, honestly, why I fell in love with surgery.”

Suah is encouraged to see a growing number of women interested in the transplant surgery, even though it can be a difficult and demanding job.

“It requires a lot of you, and it's for good reason,” Suah said. “In today’s world, when there are a lot of things to be discouraged about, it is meaningful to have a surgeon who cares about you and who is attentive to your needs — not just the organ we are sewing in, but all of you, and wanting you to do well head to toe.”

Improving the care experience for Black transplant patients

Suah knows many big challenges remain. Black Americans are three to four times more likely to need a kidney transplant than their white counterparts, but they are far less likely to receive a donated kidney. It’s a similar situation with heart, kidney and lung transplants. In 2022, only 22% of all organ transplant recipients nationwide were Black, according to Gift of Life.

The problem was exasperated for years by a flawed system that put Black patients at a disadvantage for donor organs. The system was corrected and made equitable in 2023, and organ wait times for Black patients have since dropped dramatically, reports the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Because donor matches are more likely when an organ comes from someone of the same ethnic or racial background, it’s also critical to boost educational efforts around organ donation, Suah said. This step, she said, is essential to addressing uncertainties about the process and to help more donors of color become knowledgeable.

“Teams of physicians are going to honor and respect your body and be able to give a gift of life to others through your donation,” Suah said.

Just as important is a strong focus on preventive care. Kidney and liver failure are more prevalent in the Black population due to higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure. But a lack of access to healthcare and health education, as well as generations of mistrust toward the medical field, means many Black people may not know that they have a health issue until they’re in crisis, facing organ failure and interacting with the hospital staff for the first time, Suah said.

It’s why she views community outreach and greater diversity among healthcare teams as critical steps.

“It is very special to me to have my patients see some of themselves in me,” Suah said. “My goal is for all of my patients to have a very positive interaction.”

Ashley Suah

Ashley Suah, MD

Board certified in surgery, Ashley Suah, MD, is a highly skilled transplant surgeon with a specialty in kidney and liver transplant.

Read Dr. Suah's bio