She sits in a wheelchair with her head propped up like the late actor Christopher Reeves after his spinal cord injury. She can’t lift a finger, but she commands the respect of people in her presence.
“When she speaks, every one stops speaking to listen and this is how she directs her film,” said Dr. Claudia-Lynn Thomas, an orthopedic surgeon featured in Crystal R. Emery’s documentary “Black Women in Medicine.”
In a body stricken with paralyzing nerve damage caused by Charcot Marie Tooth disease – an inherited neurological disorder – her mind and her voice is all Crystal R. Emery has.
The New Haven native and filmmaker is a quadriplegic African-American woman who – despite her condition – has traveled the country documenting how black women become and live as doctors in America.
For sure, the mission had its difficulties.
“You won’t last long enough to get the check,” a potential sponsor told the filmmaker after seeing that Emery was so restricted in her activities.
But with perseverance, Emery raised $800,000, the amount required to finalize the project.
Before “Black Women in Medicine” was complete, the filmmaker would face an ample share of potential roadblocks.
She would have to organize a crew of 17 — some to aide with her powerless body and some to help with the making of her film. She needed financial backers and she had to galvanize a group of 20 black female physicians — who face routine scrutiny; including racism and sexism — to trust her enough to tell their stories.
And because black women make up only two percent of the physician workforce, per Emery’s findings: “No, it wasn’t that easy… I had to spend a lot of time with them to earn their trust.”
Emery scheduled her first meeting with Dr. Thomas over the phone.
Before they met for filming, Emery hadn’t mentioned her diminished state to a surprised Dr. Thomas – who would soon find that despite the filmmaker’s paralysis, her strength and determination were profound.
Encouraged by Emery’s presence the physician reflected on life.
“Everybody has a purpose and that purpose is intended to be fulfilled despite the obstacles that we will all face,” Thomas said.
“When you know that — [your mission] is not something that you want to give up on — no matter how difficult it becomes or impossible it appears to achieve the goal,” Thomas said.
Emery agrees with Thomas. Though limited physically, the filmmaker won’t limit her talents, or give up, but admits “It’s not that easy.”
Since she depends on others to assist her, she must push forward, even when her support “tries to project their limitations on to me,” she said.
The thinking is reminiscent of a popular philosophy that says when we focus more on how to accomplish a thing, as opposed to why we cannot, possibilities show up.
“I’m still the same person,” Emery said. “I come from a family with good work ethics. So, I always did not allow excuses of any kind … to not be successful with anything.”
Revealing that she was “able bodied” before the disease crippled her, Emery said, “People see me in this wheelchair and they think that it’s exceptional, but I produced exceptional work before I was in this wheelchair. I lived in Paris, I worked in Germany for the U.S. Military – the Army; I was stationed in Heidelberg.”
Emery agrees that obstacles can seem insurmountable, but nothing can stop the determined mind. Over the course of a 30-year career, while gradually losing body functionality, the filmmaker produced more than 20 plays and two feature-length documentary films.
She wants her audiences to know that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
“It’s not where you live or what has happened to you but how you make the best of it,” she said. “There is a God and when you are open to that consciousness – so what I’m a quadriplegic – does that mean I have to stop and die?
“My body demands the attention of a team, and in this way my body resembles the work I undertake to make the world a better place.”
Emery’s full-length documentary “Black Women in Medicine” shows the history and contemporary issues that continue to make black women a small minority in the field of medicine.
The documentary — which also provides audiences with a vivid experience of the triumph of the human spirit — had its L.A. theatrical release fall of 2016 and is airing on American Public Television this coming spring.
Emery ruminates more on how she does it.
“You have to have faith and a strong [mind] to make movies,” she said. “There is a power greater than I that has given me the gift of mental capacity.”