Dr. Willie Newman, A Profile in Courage
A desire to rise above his humble beginnings, coupled with the inspiration of several role models and a mother who believed that to be successful required an education, led Willie Newman, MD, JD, a native of Sanford, to become a respected practitioner of obstetrics and gynecology in Seminole County.
The saga of Newman’s success began on Dec. 10, 1954, when he was born into a family of poor migrant farm workers. From his childhood years on, he has always been dedicated, pouring his heart into his work, whether delivering newspapers, picking beans and potatoes or mowing lawns.
The son of a father with no formal learning and a mother with an eighth grade education, Newman, the first in his family to go to college, graduated from both medical school and law school.
The death of his third grade teacher during childbirth provided Newman’s impetus to become a doctor. “Things in the social system were not equal and I felt that if she had gotten better attention at the time, it may have made a difference,” he said.
Recalling his childhood, Newman, who has delivered more than 10,000 babies since he began practicing said, “At my house, education was the priority. You may have been tired, but you’d better get that homework assignment done. My mother fervently believed that education was the key to success.”
Even though the challenges were many and his early education was fragmented, growing up as a migrant farm laborer did not deter Newman from his dreams. Newman related that as a child, he and his family might travel to South Carolina to pick beans and then travel to Maryland to harvest corn or potatoes. The constant traveling prohibited him and his sister, Nancy, now a nurse, from having “consistency in the education process,” but his mom’s mantra, “education is the key,” kept the siblings focused.
Explaining that he grew up in an area where more often than not, African American males ended up with menial jobs or in jail, Newman, an honors graduate of Tulane Medical School, said that on his road to success he ignored the admonitions of those who laughed at his dreams. Instead, he looked to people such as his mom and family doctor, Edwin Epstein, for encouragement.
He credits Epstein with helping him overcome a stuttering problem. “I used to stutter like crazy and was teased unmercifully by kids and adults,” he recalled. “Dr. Epstein gave me hints and clues as to how to control and overcome my stuttering.”
Newman’s medical education was paid for through a combination of scholarships, grants and loans as well as assistance from the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). His loan from the USPHS stipulated that upon graduation from medical school, he would provide services to underprivileged patients. To meet this obligation, he chose to return to a clinic in Sanford where he was on call 24/7.
Today, as a physician, Newman is well regarded by his peers. “I have known Willie for 22 years and there is no finer physician. He is one of a kind. He is innovative, an immaculate surgeon and has always had time not only for his peers, but special time for his patients,” said Dr. John Robertson, president of the Seminole County Medical Society.
Longwood OB/GYN, Clyde Climer, MD, who has known Newman since 1984, called Newman a remarkable person and an excellent gynecologic surgeon who has “a vast fund of knowledge and a charismatic personality that is effective with patients.”
“Most patients that have known him for one visit call him a lifelong friend,” he said. “He is an exemplary doctor…who overcame insurmountable obstacles to achieve his goals and become not just a physician, but probably the top of the line best physician one could become.”
Twenty years ago, Newman needed to learn about contract law to assist him in a governmental contract conflict. He enrolled in a Louisiana law school that offered “mail-order degrees.” Although he checked out the school before plunging ahead, and put his heart and soul into his studies, when he prepared to take the California Bar Exam, he learned the school was not accredited.
After an investigation, a federal judge ruled that although Newman’s degree was legitimate, he could not take a bar exam and would have to tell future employers that the school was not accredited.
Not one to sit idly, in 2002, Newman enrolled in the law program at Florida A&M and in 2005, passed the bar exam on his first try. Today, in addition to his work as an OB/GYN, Newman does administrative legal work.
In addition to his educational achievements, Newman’s accomplishments are many, including implementation of Seminole County’s Improved Pregnancy Outcome Program. Through the program which ensures that underprivileged women receive quality prenatal care, the county’s infant morbidity and mortality rates have been sharply reduced.
As a consultant for the Seminole County Public Health Department, Newman performs OB/GYN consults for women incarcerated at the Seminole County jail. Sadly, he noted that for some, the only time they receive care is while jailed.
He recalled that as a child, if an adult paid attention to him, he felt special. “Even if they just knew my name, it was a big deal,” he said. With his formative years always in the back of his mind, Newman created “Newman Ride-Alongs” in 1984.
During “ride-alongs” initiated at a parent’s request, Newman spends quality time with an “at risk” child. After starting the day at the hospital, Newman and his charge take a ride in a “fancy car” to his former neighborhood where they visit his old home and some of the people he grew up with.
In Newman’s words, “some of the people I grew up with are not the most inviting people to meet” and more often than not, the child is shocked by the contrast of the doctor’s two worlds.
After the ride, Newman takes the child to his wife’s estate, where sitting poolside they discuss challenges and choices, things they want to do and dream of doing, as well as how changes can help them realize their goals.
Newman refers to the experience as “a surreal moment … kids had the ability, but didn’t have the enthusiasm or were focused on the wrong things. It’s rewarding to go face to face with the kids.”
He has been witness to positive outcomes from his “ride-alongs,” as some of these youth graduated as doctors and lawyers. In fact, one of “his kids” recently wrote to Newman, telling him how important he was in his life.
Although Newman successfully surmounted poverty, racial prejudice and stuttering to dedicate his life to caring for others, with a diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma this past March, Newman is in need of care from others.
An extremely rare form of cancer affecting the biliary ducts inside the liver, it is estimated that in the United States, approximately 5,000 cases of cholangiocarcinoma are diagnosed annually.
Speaking about his illness Newman said although his prognosis is not pretty, it doesn’t mean it’s not curable. “Being a physician and understanding what disease is makes it a little unpleasant,” he admitted.
For him, this is not a situation of whether he will survive, but a matter of how his life is changing, what he does with these changes and whether or not he appreciates the blessings he receives. Counted among his greatest blessings are his wife, Dr. Joetta Newman, and their children Courtney, Chris and Nick.
In battling the disease, Newman is practicing words spoken by a patient who recovered from cancer: “Deal with it. Don’t let it become your life.” Noting that he wants to have a modicum of normalcy in his life, Newman is still seeing patients and performing surgery while undergoing treatment for his illness.
As Newman faces life’s greatest obstacle dealt thus far, he vowed to “prepare for the worst, but accept anything better.”