Dr. Tasha Axam- Profiles in Diversity

Dr. Tasha Axam- Profiles in Diversity

Veterinary Radiologist and CEO of Axam Imaging, Inc.
GVMA Board of Directors, District 4

Dr. Tasha Axam, a native of Atlanta, GA., received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. She went on to complete her residency in Diagnostic Imaging at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. Dr. Axam worked at Saint Francis Veterinary Specialists for 13 years before forming Axam Imaging, Inc. a Georgia based teleradiology and mobile ultrasound service. In 2016, Tasha and her partner Erinn welcomed the greatest gift of all, their son Komari Sloan. Outside of work she enjoys traveling with her family and spending time with her German Shepherd dog Karu.

When you were growing up did you encounter any Black veterinarians? Did you have any veterinarians of color to look up too?
Not just Black veterinarians, Black professionals in almost every walk of life. Atlanta is the mecca of Black professionals. I grew up in the heart of the Black Atlanta community, so I was blessed to be surrounded by black professionals. I interacted with black lawyers, doctors, teachers, veterinarians, police officers, postal workers, etc. I grew up in the “Atlanta Bubble”. I consider myself privileged to have been raised in Atlanta. My mother, a lawyer by training, served the first Black mayor of Atlanta and my father, also a lawyer, established his own practice, so I was exposed to role models in every profession and protected in ways that many of my friends were not. I was one of the privileged few who had the good fortune to meet multiple black veterinarians who served as role models for me.

“We have lived the experiences that America “tasted” in 2020.  When we turn off the clinic lights and make our way home to our families, we too are George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. “

Why do you think there are so few Black veterinarians even though they make up 13.4 percent of the general population?
Because of our unique history in this country, African Americans have always had to fight for the education and training needed to advance as professionals in America. The education gap is real. Anyone who knows our history knows that generations before us had to hide opportunities to simply learn to read. We have had to create our own schools – at the elementary, high school, college and professional levels—because we were denied equal and equitable access to education, supposedly the great equalizer for closing the achievement gap. For years, there was only one school that African Americans who wanted to become veterinarians could attend—my alma mater, an historical black college, Tuskegee University. The Tuskegee College of Veterinary Medicine was established formally in 1944 to train and educate African Americans who, because of racism and segregation, did not have other pathways or opportunities to become veterinarians. I am a proud alumna. The Tuskegee University veterinary program is one of only 32 Veterinary Schools in the United States and has produced greater than 70 percent of all black veterinarians practicing in America today.

What are some of the ways in which you feel that it’s more difficult to be Black in veterinary medicine?
As a black veterinarian I have faced—and have had to manage—microaggressions, biases, and prejudices that are not always tangible, but ever present. The dynamic existed not only with the academic professors I encountered in my Internship and my Residency, but also with my colleagues, and clients. I have had to work twice as hard as my white colleagues to be seen for who I am and accepted as an equal. And my experience is not unique.

African American veterinarians walk in the door having to prove our credentials and our competency, having to insist that we, too, have earned the right to be here. Others – specifically my white colleagues – generally walk in with an assumption that they are well trained, credentialed, and competent. As African American veterinarians, we are questioned and doubted. I have often been taken or treated as the technician and not the doctor. You are always having to prove yourself – over and over. You are always having to insist that your voice is valid and your opinions matter. You often feel invisible and certainly de-valued. It is an exhausting position to be in. It is one of the reasons I am grateful for the education and nurturing environment that I received at Tuskegee from a group of diverse professors that included people that looked like me and shared similar experiences.

Dr. Tasha Axam perform an ultrasound procedure on a canine patient.

What was it like to experience the racial tensions in the summer of 2020 and then go to work? Did you talk about your feelings with your co-workers? Did you want too?
Your question is emotionally laden. My answer is as well. I was angry. I am still angry. I was sad. I am still sad. I was frustrated. I am still frustrated. I was afraid. I am still afraid. Unless there are other Black doctors or nurses on the staff (and more often than not, if you work in a specialty, we are not the majority), those around you are not likely to appreciate your situation or your emotion. We have lived the experiences that America “tasted” in 2020. When we turn off the clinic lights and make our way home to our families, we too are George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Yes, I have been pulled over by the police for no reason, I have been followed in the department store, I have been accused of stealing, I have had my car searched by dogs, I have been told I would not succeed as a veterinarian and that I would not pass my Boards. We do not talk about these incidents openly, but they are part of our daily lives. I was raised not to wallow in the insults and their impact, but to live my life grateful for my achievements, and working to make a difference for those who come after me, just as those before me paved my way. I was disappointed that some of my closest colleagues at work avoided the conversation about what was happening because it was uncomfortable. What privilege! I have always been open to talking with coworkers, but they must first be open to talking—honestly and authentically—with me. They must be willing to be uncomfortable. They must understand that it is a privilege not to have to think about or worry about racial tension and how it is affecting you or your family—today, tomorrow, and forever. I was disappointed in the conversations that were not had in my workplace. Unless you have lived our lives as African Americans, you will never fully feel what we feel or know the depths of our emotions, but there is a role others can play. Their voices could be supportive, encouraging, reaffirming, and re-enforcing.

What do you wish your colleagues knew about practicing medicine as a minority in white dominant profession?
I wish my colleagues understood the “programming” we have experienced from very early ages. African Americans have been told we would not succeed, we cannot be doctors, we are not as smart, we are not as educated, we are not worthy. It’s just not true. There are very few Black Americans who have not experienced this dialogue at some point in their lives. I wish they understood the importance of role models in our community and mentors who offer a safe harbor and encouragement for our youth. Diversity and representation in every profession is important.

Have you received any hurtful words regarding your gender or ethnicity?
Yes I have. But it is not in my nature, nor do I desire, to relive or rehash these experiences. My goal is to move forward and to overcome the adversity the world has created around my race and gender. The real question is, when will we no longer encounter hurtful words regarding my gender and ethnicity?

Have you had any negative experiences with clients and/or colleagues where you were discriminated against because of your race/ethnicity?
My negative experiences are numerous. They are usually generated out of an implicit bias or unconscious assumption that I am “not as smart “or that my opinion or perspective is “not as important” or that I “don’t have a context or enough experience” to be a leader or offer an idea or solution. I often find that I must make a conscious effort to be assertive to be seen and heard, while simultaneously being sure that my assertiveness is not labeled aggressive or dogmatic. Finding that balance can be tough – and yes, once again, exhausting.

“Unless you have lived our lives as African Americans, you will never fully feel what we feel or know the depths of our emotions, but there is a role others can play.  Their voices could be supportive, encouraging, reaffirming, and re-enforcing.”   

In what ways does the profession need to evolve in regard to race/ethnicity?
The profession needs to be intentional and authentic about committing to and supporting diversity and equity in every aspect of the profession and the practice of veterinarian medicine. On a daily basis the profession must work to be inclusive of voices of color to actionize short- and long-term goals to eliminate the inequities, conscious and unconscious biases, and intentional and unintentional acts of discrimination. We must all make a conscious effort to entertain the “uncomfortable” conversations and to challenge assumptions that compromise all of us.

Do you feel like you can show your true identity at work? If not what would that look like for you?
Absolutely not. Work gets a muted version of the real Me. Most things that I say are tempered. It is the only way that I am acknowledged and heard. There have even been occasions where I have had to ask coworkers to present my ideas to management, just so my idea receives consideration. Even as I write answers for this article, I find myself removing sentences and words that might be misconstrued or characterized as inflammatory, causing the message to be lost or unheard. I hope what I have said here will be read by the target audience of the magazine and not simply dismissed. I hope it causes the audience to take a moment to reflect and make some new commitments. In my professional world, I constantly consider what performance I will give today. I am granted only a few opportunities to impact how we relate to one another, how we maximize communication and make this a better world for us all. I am intensely careful to use those opportunities judiciously.

“African Americans have been told we would not succeed, we cannot be doctors, we are not as smart, we are not as educated, we are not worthy.  It’s just not true.  There are very few Black Americans who have not experienced this dialogue at some point in their lives.”

How has this impacted your career trajectory?
Despite the negativity and race and gender charged challenges I have had to face on my pathway to becoming a Board-certified Veterinary Radiologist, I made it. In spite being told at a majority College that I would never be a doctor; I am Dr. Tasha M. Axam. In the face of doctors being told they would probably need to follow up on my cases during my Small Animal Medicine Internship because I did not have the knowledge other interns had, I handled my assigned cases and proved them wrong. Despite being warned during my Residency that I would not pass my Diagnostic Imaging Boards on the first attempt, I passed. I persevered. I graduated from Duke University with a double major, a BS in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy and a BS in Psychology. I graduated from The Tuskegee College of Veterinary Medicine as the valedictorian, summa cum laude. I completed my Internship at Purdue University and acquired a Diagnostic Imaging Residency at the University of Georgia, becoming one of maybe a dozen Black veterinarians – and one of four to five Black women veterinarians—in the American College of Veterinary Radiology. I served as a staff Radiologist to a prominent 24-hour Specialty and Emergency hospital, Saint Francis Veterinary Specialists and Emergency, for 13 years. I now own my own business, Axam Imaging, Inc. proving global teleradiology services, and mobile ultrasound services to the metro Atlanta area.

“Sadly, those who know no better, miscalculated the power and the support of the Tuskegee veterinarian community. I stand on the shoulders of many before me and recognize, therefore, my responsibility to those who will come after me.”

What additional challenges did you encounter in the profession when you became a mother?
I was lucky to work for a husband-and-wife team who understood and supported family and work life balance. They supported me by providing me the time I needed for maternity leave, though it was unpaid because they were a small business. They also supported additional time off that I unexpectedly needed to care for my son.

In what ways does the profession need to evolve regarding motherhood?
In a few words: Paid maternity and paternity leave needs to become the norm in America.

What do you hope that the next generation of women and/or minorities in the profession are spared from that you’ve had to endure?
It is my hope that the next generation of women and minorities are spared from the discrimination, bias and non-helpful assumptions I had to endure; that they do not have to manage the inequities historically present in our profession. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, and at the risk of sounding cliché, “I have a dream that one day we will not be judged by the color of our skin but the content of our character.” “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead” … making a difference.

Taken from the 2021 fall edition of “The GA Vet” magazine.