The path to Lytia Fisher, M14, becoming a physician may have been carved decades before she was born
Lytia Fisher, M14, resides and practices obstetrics and gynecology in Baltimore, but she recently returned to Tufts University’s Health Sciences campus in Boston, with her mother, Toby Fisher, and grandmother, Fannie Fisher.
The three generations of Fisher women, all Philadelphia natives, sat down for a candid discussion on how, over time and centuries, their family was instilled with the values of faith, education, perseverance, and sacrifice.
When Lytia graduated from Tufts University School of Medicine in 2014, her family chartered a bus from the Philadelphia area and filled it with 45 friends and family who arrived at Tufts to celebrate the momentous occasion.
Of all the attendees, Lytia was most honored by the presence of one.
“The most important part of the ceremony was having my great grandmother, Anna Henderson, who was 114 years old at the time, there for my final graduation,” Lytia remembered. “She had been at all of my other graduations and this was just a couple months before she passed away. She gave me a source of inspiration to be where I am today.”
Looking at a photo from Lytia's graduation (above) of themselves and Lytia's great-grandmother, Anna, the women reflected on what was going through their minds that day.
Toby: “My grandmother [Anna], who lived with us since she was 107, every time my daughter would come home, [my grandmother] was so excited and [Lytia] said, ‘I'm gonna graduate from medical school, grandmom.’ And she said, ‘that's something to live for.’ So I feel like [my grandmother] willed herself to live for the day that my daughter graduated from medical school.
And so she says, ‘So you're gonna be a doctor?’ And [Lytia] says, ‘Yeah,’ [and my grandmother asked] ‘a baby doctor? Well, you'll never deliver my baby.’ But [my grandmother], like my daughter said, was there for every graduation. She enjoyed every accomplishment—reveled in every accomplishment that her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great, great-grandchildren had. I always thought that she really willed herself to stay around to see that day. She said, ‘In my family, I've got doctors, lawyers, teachers, I got everything. She said, ‘Anna, pat yourself on the back. Good job.’”
Fannie: “Lytia was determined to be a doctor, and I knew that she would do it. And her mother encouraged her. Her mother's amazing to me because they're so close. She's a natural mother. I'm just a mother, but she's natural. I’m just looking at them [in the photo] and my mother’s natural, my daughter’s natural, but I’m just a mother.”
Toby: “Just a mother.” That's not something to say about yourself. You're more than a mother. You're our friend. Our confidant. Lytia wants to take you on all these trips because she said, who better? Who better to spend my time with than my mother and my grandmother? So apparently, you’re more than a mother. And like your mother said, pat yourself on the back.
Lytia: “We are who we are because of grandmom, because of you, because of my grandfather, Lewis Fisher. I was so blessed. My mom had me at 18, so I grew up with everyone. I grew up in a household with my mom, my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt, and my uncle. My aunt and I are only 13 years apart. They were like an extension of my siblings, but also my aunt and uncle. Same for my grandmother and grandfather. They were my grandparents, but also like parents. I look at that structure that I had as being a blessing to who I am today because I believe in extended family.
And when we had my great-grandmother live with us, it was because, what else was there to do? I feel that way now with both my mom and my grandmother, that if anything were to happen to them, they're gonna live with me. I wouldn't care if I had five kids. Because that is what we've always been instilled, that family comes first.
I was raised by a household of love, but I also have a village surrounding. And I picked up many mentors and friends who have carried me to where I am today as well."
Toby: "Speaking of the village, that was a busload of people. We were all gonna just follow each other in cars. And I thought that was fine. Everybody's old enough to drive. And my Aunt Bea felt it was necessary to rent a bus. She would not take no for an answer. So, we rented a bus, had a driver, paid for his hotel. I mean, he took us everywhere we had to go. And I mean, when folks found out more and more people wanted to come, so it was over 45 people. When we got there, they said they've never seen a busload of people come to a graduation. One mother said, I'm here with my son alone. Could you guys stand up and cheer when they say his name? And we did.
But I mean, it was a trip to remember for my mother's brothers who were, she's next to the baby in her family. So, they were 80 years old and my grandmother, 114, my cousins, my brother, my father, who at that time was a double amputee, he was on the bus and it was comfortable for everyone. And we really enjoyed the entire weekend, Lytia and her friends, because five African American girls graduated at the same time, they planned [and] they had parties for the whole family and all of their families as well. For three nights, we just partied and enjoyed each other's company.”
Anna Henderson, who was born Anna Lois Berrian in Washington County, Georgia, on March 5, 1900, moved to Philadelphia as a young woman during the great migration of the 1920s. Though her father urged her to seek a safer life in Pennsylvania amid racist marginalization, segregation, and brutalization in the South, she was reluctant to leave family.
But after staying with a family friend for a time, her family joined her and settled in Pennsylvania. Henderson, whose education ended in the sixth grade, then established her own family and raised eight children with her husband Rembert Henderson, a childhood friend.
Education became incredibly important to Anna's daughter, Fannie, and her seven siblings. Fannie earned her bachelor’s degree, taught for 25 years, and eventually became certified to become a principal—all after she raised her children. She enrolled in college at 39 years old.
Fannie’s husband, Lewis, was the first in his family to attend college. After retiring, Lewis went back to school at 70 in pursuit of his doctorate, which he worked toward until he passed away at 85 in 2021.
Much like her grandparents, Lytia was determined to achieve her goals, one of which may have been passed down through several generations.
Lytia: “I took five years off between med school and undergrad. I've always had this dream since first grade [when] I wrote down that I wanted to be a doctor. By third grade, I said I wanted to be an OB-GYN. Who even knew what an OB-GYN was in third grade? And I wonder, I still wonder to this day, what exactly was the one thing that got me here? I believe that Ann Thomas, my great-grandmother's grandmother as a midwife, that inspiration of her story, allowed me to foster my own interests. It must have been kind of inherent in me because I just knew, and no one could shake this out of me, even when I wanted to shake it out myself.
I am determined, and I get that from my family as well. But having that determination and perseverance to stick with it is something that was hard. I do it because, I believe in also the Maya Angelou quote, ‘I come as one and stand as 10,000.’ Because I know I stand on my ancestor's shoulders, every day when I do what I do, and sometimes it's very challenging, I know I'm doing this for Ann Thomas. I'm doing this for my great-grandmother, Anna Henderson, and me as Leeann is my middle name. We all carry that Ann [name] and it's on purpose. So, I know that I represent us as a family and us as a culture. I really believe it, and it keeps me going every day.”
Toby: "I just think the Lord put a dream in her heart, and the day she realized it, she started watering that dream. She sets goals and she doesn't quit until she achieves them. I think, you know, she's a plan-A type. I'm a plan-B [type person]. Because a mother always wants to soften the burden of their child, I said, ‘I got the perfect career choice for you. How about you be a physician assistant?’ because I didn't want her to take the hard road. And she refused to do that.
She said, ‘I'm going to do all this study.’ I said, ‘It's a shorter time. You know, you don't have to have so much pressure on you.’ She said, ‘I'm gonna do all that work and have to do everything a doctor does, but not get the benefits. And I always wanted to be a doctor, so I'm not deterring from my plan.’
Whatever goal she sets, she makes sure she achieves it.”
Lytia: “I also wanted to touch on education a little bit more, because my great-grandmother went to [school until] the sixth grade. I think as my grandmother said, that it was important for [her children] to matriculate and go to college, regardless of when it actually started or ended. I think that it was also important for me.
I started private school and I was five, and I stayed in the same private school for 13 years, so I was a lifer. Then I went to Spelman and then I took those five years off, worked at University of Pennsylvania, was a research coordinator in rheumatology, and then went into Tufts. And I think I started to say earlier, but I forgot to finish up, how having that time that I traveled, that I worked independently, allowed me to appreciate the gift of medical school even more than if I just had gone through for myself.”
Lytia, Toby, Fannie, and Henderson (pictured together above) are the descendants of Ann Thomas, a midwife born into enslavement in Georgia in the 1850s, whose story inspired many of Lytia’s family members throughout their lives.
“My great grandmother, Anna, was delivered by her grandmother, who was born in the 1850s,” Lytia said. “We’re unsure what year she was born because we only have census records to go from.”
As a midwife in rural Georgia, Thomas delivered all her grandchildren, Henderson included. She also delivered many other children in the area, and her involvement in community, dedication to education, family, and faith, and even her name, have been passed down through the generations.
Thomas inspired Lytia, whose carries the name Anne as part of her middle name, Leanne, to pursue a career in medicine, specifically in obstetrics and gynecology—a dream she was able to articulate in elementary school.
Lytia, Toby, and Fannie, have worked together to trace their lineage and document their family’s history through the stories of their ancestors. Before Henderson passed away, Toby accompanied her then 108-year-old grandmother and great aunt to their hometown in Sandersville, Georgia.
“It is just a dirt town with a few houses,” Toby recalled. “As soon as we turned some dirt road, [my grandmother] said, ‘Oh, I know where we are. That's the corner where two brothers had stores across the street from each other.’ And I thought, ‘That doesn’t even sound right.’
So we got out of the car and there was a plaque on the wall, even though the building wasn’t there. It said, ‘John Bryan’s general store,’ and the other brother had a plaque on his wall. I couldn’t believe it. She was 108.”
Lytia's family history, and its collective strength and determination, were a driving force behind her success.
Lytia: “The education piece in terms of why I knew this was what I was going to do, and why college was an important step for me is because my grandfather, Lewis Fisher was the first in his family to go to college. From him stemmed doctors and lawyers and very, very smart people. Him having that determination and perseverance to go to a historically Black college really motivated his whole family. He was a principal and worked at the post office—two full-time jobs—so I knew that I could do it. I knew that it was within my reach.
Toby: “She forgot to say that those five years that she came home and worked, she was taking care of me because I was suffering with dermatomyositis. When [Lytia] graduated from Spelman, I came in a wheelchair because dermatomyositis is a muscle deterioration, an autoimmune disease. So when she came home [from Spelman], she escorted me to the hospital, and one of those research coordinators came over and I said, ‘I do not want to be bothered. They're getting ready to come over here.’ And she said, ‘Mom, just be nice.’ I said, ‘I'm sick. I don't feel good. I don't feel like being nice.’
As we talked to one of the ladies, and she told me about a study that I should enter and all, then I said, ‘Oh, [my daughter] needs a job, she just graduated, you know.’ So her escorting me to the hospital and being my caregiver is what got her a job. I was very grateful for that as well. And it didn't only get her a job and got her new mentors. I really am truly blessed that they invested their time and effort in her. And sometimes when things don't happen for us, she says, ‘I don't have anything going for me except I'm nice.’ And I said, ‘That ‘nice’ is what draws folks to you, and they want to be invested in your lives.’ And they’re there forever. Everyone that she’s met along the way, they’re still great friends and they love to hear her good, her bad, and they’re there to give any input that she really needs.”
Fannie: “I also think that having those five years off, she matured more. She was able to be sympathetic, empathetic to people. And it just made a difference. I didn't think it at first, but that was really good.”
Toby: “And then the group of girls that went to med school with her, they all needed each other at that time. They were perfect for each other. The Lord knows, which you don't know. He saw that for [Lytia], but [she] didn’t. You’d just say, ‘I’m working, I’m trying to take the MCATs, I’m getting ready to try to go to medical school, I may go to DO school, I may do this.’ But the path was made from the beginning.
I always say the Lord put a dream in her heart when she was six, by the time she was eight, it got even more focused and everything she did to water it was what helped it come true.”
Lytia: “As my mom said, I set goals and I knew early on I wanted to go to Spelman. So the best day of my life was [well] two days: Spelman when I got in, that was the day after Christmas. And when I got the call here [from Tufts] from Dean Neumeyer, that was New Year's Eve. He called me New Year's Eve right before we went to church. I actually missed the phone call, but I played the recording all the time. Those were the two best days of my life thus far.
Chief of Photography for Tufts University Communications and Marketing Alonso Nichols contributed to the research and production of this article.