She could have had a lucrative medical practice in the Washington DC suburbs. Instead, Dr. Lewis-Ragland decided to live and work where she grew up, in Ward 8, which has the highest crime rates, murder rates, poverty rates, teen pregnancy rates, and death rates from Covid-19 anywhere in the DC area.
For 18 years, Dr. Lewis-Ragland has been a community pediatrician with Children’s National Healthcare System. Every day she deals with life and death and stories of grief and trauma, of young children raised by grandparents because their parents are working long hours or incarcerated or who have died from drug abuse or violence.
Dr. Lewis-Ragland is a woman of courage who succeeded in life despite a series of adverse childhood experiences that easily might have derailed her path. Her father was a Vietnam veteran who turned to alcohol and became abusive when he returned from combat. Yolanda’s mother was a hard worker, employed at Boeing, who raised her and her three brothers alone in Seattle, where they fled for safety sake.
A tight-knit family, Yolanda was devastated when she lost her mother to a brain aneurysm and a brother to drug abuse.
As brutal as all this sounds, it is only part of her story. Yolanda started to search for something, anything that could help her cope with the stress and trauma. Serendipitously, she heard about a course in Transcendental Meditation being offered for free at the Community Center where she worked and decided, Why not?
Immediately she noticed meditation did what she hoped: it built up her resilience and immunity to her real-life dramas. She also noticed something else: She had a pressing deadline for a new book on childhood obesity. But she had writer’s block—and had made almost no headway in six months. After learning to meditate, the creativity flowed and she wrote 10 chapters and sent it to the publisher within three months.
Yolanda has always been an advocate for community health. Now, she saw the benefit of adding meditation to the mix—bringing it to her patients and their families as well as her fellow doctors and nurses who are treating patients in the frontlines of Ward 8 and beyond.
I met Dr Lewis-Ragland for the first time in Washington a few years ago during a Town Hall meeting about meditation as a “violence interrupter.” I asked an obvious question: With all the things that are needed in Ward 8—better health care, better education, better housing, better jobs, why is she advocating for meditation?
“You need to improve everything”, she said. But then she adds: “When you live in a violent community with a lot of stress and poverty and depression—it’s like everything is already stacked against you. You feel like a victim because you feel you don’t have any control but with meditation you do have control. You are empowered. It’s yours for life. You can do it right now. You can reduce your anger, you can increase your energy, and, if you are a student, you can improve your test scores. I believe this can be anyone’s ticket out of any bad situation or circumstance.”
I thought long about my interaction with Dr. Lewis-Ragland. And when I think of her I think of courage. Courage to overcome obstacles, to aim high, to be true to herself.
And I am reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
So, may we all follow in Dr. Lewis-Ragland’s steps and take courage to do what we know to be right and know all the other.