Lead Story West Edition

Doctor was first black to lead county medical group

LOS ANGELES — Dr. C. Freeman describes the moment in 2018 when she became the first African American president of the Los Angeles County Medical Association as the “best day of her life.”

“It was the best day because I had all of my family there,” she said. “It wasn’t all blood relatives, it was also my medical community.”

Everyone who is special in her life was there.

“They came in from all over the U.S.,” she said. “There were my parents, cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews, childhood friends and people from my residency. I had people there from every aspect of my life.”

Founded in 1871, the county Medical Association is an organization that advocates quality care for all patients and provides services to meet the professional needs of its physician members.

Before Dr. Freeman became the 147th president of the leading organization for physicians in Los Angeles County, there had never been an African American in the leadership role. 

Dr. Freeman says she didn’t feel any pressure. Instead she looked at it as an opportunity.

“I didn’t feel pressure because in the role of president I wasn’t representing just women or just African Americans,” said Freeman, who has been a member of the association for 10 years and had served as district counselor, district treasurer and board member. “So to be acknowledged by your peers – there was nothing better.”

Although her tenure ended in July 2019, Freeman remembers it being an “awesome experience.”

“When I became the president, I wanted to come in and grow the membership and coalesce it,” said Freeman, who is an advocate for making health care accessible. “I wanted our meetings to run efficiently. I instituted teleconferencing for our meetings. I wanted to deliver compassion to my colleagues.

“We were looking at new levels of inclusion and active advocacy, which increases the value for more physicians. It also had the ability to stimulate growth in involvement and impact. I did everything I wanted to do.”

Although her presidency has ended, Dr. Freeman, a geriatric psychiatrist, is still busy in the community with her practice. She thinks she is one of three black geriatric psychiatrists in the Los Angeles area.

“We’re definitely a minority,” she said.

With a curriculum vitae that reads like that of a woman proving something, Dr. Freeman, who is affiliated with California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles, is the program director for the newly accredited Psychiatry Residency Training Program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. She received her medical degree from Howard University, dual training in internal medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

Her field of geriatric psychiatry focuses on prevention, evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders in the elderly and improvement of psychiatric care for healthy and ill elderly patients.

Asked if being a doctor is everything she thought it would be, Dr. Freeman quickly answered, “no.”

“Not at all,” she said. “I thought that every medical professional would be like me: kind, compassionate, understanding, giving and focused on the good for the patient.”

Dr. Freeman said many insurance companies, hospitals, drug companies and some health care providers have profit as a priority and not what is best for the patient or their families.

“I did not realize that as a physician that the profession would be constantly under attack,” she said. “Having to protect patient safety by fighting to make sure that providers who, under the guise of lowering health care costs, do not have the level of education and training are not set loose to practice on unknowing individuals.

“As a physician I thought that I would be respected but didn’t know that any financial success that I gained as a result of the many years of education and constant long hours of work would make me a target for frivolous lawsuits, economic envy or the scapegoat when insurance companies fail patients.”

Asked why she wanted to become a geriatric psychiatrist, Dr. Freeman was quick with her answer.

“I went into medicine to specifically become a geriatric psychiatrist, she said. “This particular focus allows me to advocate for patients in a way that no other profession has been able to.”

Although she has a tough outer shell, Dr. Freeman admits along her journey to become a doctor she got discouraged.

“The rigors of becoming a physician are intense and unfortunately, this is evidenced by huge student and increasing physician suicides,” she said. “There were so many times I became discouraged, whether it be because of poor grades, someone telling me that I didn’t have what it takes to become a doctor, no money, discrimination or lost relationships.”

Dr. Freeman said determination and a strong support system helped get her through the tough times. 

“Nothing was going to get in my way of becoming a physician, at least not for very long.” 

Ever since she was a teenager, Freeman, a Houston native, has wanted to be a doctor, but her independent behavior and her curiosity about other fields temporarily led her to Pepperdine University where she studied business. She briefly worked on a Navajo Reservation and eventually joined the Charles R. Drew Medical Society.

As a doctor, she says her mission is to make sure each of her patients feels “seen.” Although she can see upwards of 20 patients per day, Dr. Freeman is careful to give each one of them the attention they need.

“People want to know you hear and see them,” she said. “I know because I wanted the same thing.”

In her capacity as a geriatric psychiatric practitioner, Dr. Freeman, who is nursing home-based, usually focuses on patients who are 55 and over.

“By the time you’re 55, you usually have a medical problem,” she said.

When she’s examining a patient, Dr. Freeman said she is looking and listening for signs and symptoms that might be consistent with mental illness or a specific diagnosis. 

“If my patient has never had a full medical workup, then I can’t presume it’s from a mental cause per se,” she said. “I have to rule out if it’s caused by a medical problem or family history, circumstances, trauma in the background or other factors. In medicine, you’re always learning something new.”

She credits her love of learning to her parents, Thomas and Clarice Freeman, who are 100 and 99 years-old, respectively. Her father, who is from Virginia, was a minister in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a college professor and a renowned debate coach who was a consultant on the Denzel Washington film, “The Great Debaters.” She said her father also taught the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan.

Through Jack and Jill of America, her mother, Clarice, who was from Illinois, has a national health award named after her.

“I grew up around excellence,” Dr. Freeman said, the youngest of three. “Positive images were everywhere. It was natural for me to do schooling. I’m not intimidated by anything. Excellence is part of my blood.”

In the 60s, Freeman and her siblings integrated schools in Houston. She said when she was 7 she often wondered why her family couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods.

“My father said it was because we’re not white,” she said. “At an early age, I realized I would have challenges. I learned not to let them hinder me. Racism is a white people problem, not mine. They created it.

“Luckily for me, I had great role models who taught me how to go into uncomfortable situations and make myself comfortable and to not be afraid. That’s when I realized that some learning you have to do by experience.”

A go-getter that you will “rarely find at home on a couch,” Freeman is not all work and no play. She purposely lives by the beach to “always have the feeling” that she’s on vacation. She likes to let her hair down by doing photography, playing golf, listening to music and going out or staying in with family and friends.

“They ground me.”

Over the years, Freeman has learned that easing into and out of her day is the best way to ensure she’ll have a good one. She begins and ends it by saying,

‘Thank you, Father, for another day.’