When Samantha, Sydney and Heather Butts were kids, they, like many others, went to school, took piano lessons, and dreamed of what they might become when they grew up. Nothing special, right? Their parents, Dr. Hugh and Mrs. Clementine Butts, raised their daughters to become the individuals they are today by cultivating their distinct personalities. Supporting their similarities while promoting their differences was, they say, crucial to their upbringing. The girls knew they were unique and each has made efforts to distinguish herself among their peers and others. The African-American sisters, who grew up in New York City during the 1970s and 80s and faced the same racial and gender barriers as many others, were special indeed. Together, they would overcome those challenges in spectacular fashion and take the world of public health by storm.
Last month, the Ivy League-educated triplets (yes, they’re triplets) presented the fifth annual Helen O. Dickens Commemorative Lecture on Medicine to Penn Medicine faculty and students. Typically given by a prominent figure in public health, the lectures are intended to inspire attendees with stories of the challenges speakers have encountered and how they were overcome. The annual series is named in honor of Helen O. Dickens, MD, who was born in February 1909, and would overcome tremendous barriers to eventually become the first black woman in Philadelphia to be board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the first associate dean in the country for minority affairs at the now Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Born in a time when spontaneous triplets were practically unheard of, today the Butts sisters have all gone on to forge exceptional careers in areas relating to public health. Joined by their parents, friends and family, Samantha, Sydney and Heather Butts, shared their intertwined yet unique stories, revealing how social and environmental factors influenced the direction of their life's work, and the mentors who guided them along their paths to success.
For Samantha Butts, MD, MSCE, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn Medicine, who specializes in environmental reproductive toxicology and reproductive health disparities, the commitment to public health is very much a circumstance of her up-bringing. “I am one of three triplets, and from an early age acquired an appreciation for the complexity and risk involved in pregnancy and the delivery process,” she says, adding that like her and her sisters, their mother’s slight frame was not exactly built to carry three babies at the same time. Still, Butts says their birth was relatively complication-free, despite technology’s inability to confirm the multiple births until 28 weeks into the pregnancy.
There can be no doubt that the remarkably down-to-earth trio is making their mark on public health. But their paths, though certainly among the less traveled, are their own. Effective July 1, 2014 Samantha will be promoted to the position of Associate Professor. While she focuses on delving into the role of environmental exposures on female fertility and menopause, Sydney Butts, MD,FACS, chief of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery and assistant professor of Otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and the University Hospital of Brooklyn, has clinical expertise in cleft lip and palate surgery, vascular malformations and management of adult and pediatric maxillofacial trauma. Her passion for Otolaryngology (that’s “ear, nose and throat” for the rest of us) she says, was spurred by watching her sister Heather overcome hearing issues at a young age. “We would see her going back and forth from these doctor’s appointments, which definitely sparked a curiosity. Over time, the importance of health care and the difference you could make in people’s lives became very apparent,” she said.
For Heather Butts, JD, MPH, MA, founder of the small business L.E.A.R.N. For Life Consulting, co-founder of the non-profit H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths and adjunct professor and student advisor at Columbia University's School of Public Health and St. John’s University School of Law, life took a slightly different direction. Still, she knew when she graduated from law school that public health was the place for her. Now specializing in health legislation and public health regulations, Heather is heavily involved in helping to keep the legal world up to speed with a rapidly changing landscape, thanks to healthcare reform, social media, and electronic medical record changes. In all her “downtime” she also started L.E.A.R.N. for Life Consulting, an online training and education company and is authoring a book on Civil War medicine. As an African-American female, Heather says there were unique challenges early in her career, particularly around finding mentors, and she now feels a responsibility to others. “We must never become complacent however with the gains that has been made, and I feel it is my duty to support and mentor young lawyers as they progress through the profession,” she said.
Looking at their resumes, it’s hard to believe the Butts sisters have any time at all outside of their work, but when they’re not traveling to Eriteria or Rwanda on medical missions, writing journal articles, or researching their next book, they always find time for family. They each agree that they are extremely fortunate to have a wonderful extended family, devoted friends and exceptional mentors.
“It’s nice that we live so close – my parents, Syd, and Heather live in New York, so it’s easy for us to get together for weekends and holidays to enjoy family fun time,” Samantha said.
And in case you were wondering, yes, they do talk shop when they get together. When you get them talking, they're all quick to tell you that their parents and their two sisters are a great source of inspiration, and that their family serves as the ultimate sounding board for whatever professional opportunity or challenge confronts them.