Every patient has a story...

Joyce Roberson - Accomplished Scientist, Gentle Lady

Standing at Joyce Roberson’s door, even before she extended her hand in welcome, I could already sense what she calls “her glow.” Indeed, there is an aura that surrounds this lady of accomplishment and great faith. Dressed in a lovely silk turquoise and purple robe, hair wrapped in magenta lace, Joyce beckoned me to join her. I’d already heard from staff and volunteers about this remarkable woman, and I was eager to record her life story. That first day I sat next to Joyce―in between the arrival of visitors, phone calls from friends, and a bouquet of flowers―she began to tell of her adventures. It was clear that her past has informed her path in life, and that her successes are due to her determination and intelligence. “I base my approach to life on Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Still I Rise,'” Joyce said. No matter what obstacles might have appeared in her way, Joyce Roberson, again and again, has triumphed.

A Close, Supportive Family

Born on January 27, 1952 in Sylvannia, a small segregated town in Georgia, Joyce Roberson was the youngest of eight children. When the midwife declared “it’s a girl.” Joyce’s father, Mimsie Roberson, Sr., delighted to have another daughter after six sons, decided that her name must be Joyce, for joy. And her childhood was, for the most part, joyful. Her dad was a resourceful and generous man, a Deacon at St. Paul Baptist Church, owner of his own janitorial company, and president of the “black school’s” PTA. While he made sure Joyce’s brothers helped out after school, Joyce was encouraged to spend time learning to read and write; when she entered first grade she was already ahead of her class. She recalls her dad telling her, “Your job is homework!” Joyce’s mom, Annie Mae, taught her how to make tea cakes when she was four and, raised in a faith-filled family, Joyce joined the church one summer when she was nine. Inside the safety and love of her family, Joyce believed what her parents taught: that if she gave respect to all, respect would come back to her. “We are all the same,” Joyce told me. “The same color blood runs in our veins.”

Learning about Ugliness

In the racially divided town of Sylvannia, Joyce saw people treated differently because of the color of their skin. But, experiencing love in her family, “I didn’t dwell on difference.” Then her dad developed diabetes, and she overheard her parents worrying late at night. Medical care for blacks was hard to come by. Joyce learned that her father had to wait in the clinic until all the white patients were cared for―and, if the doctor left, the black patients simply had to try again some other time. Joyce watched her father’s health slowly deteriorate. She was beginning to realize that there was ugliness in the world as well as love.

Called to a Vocation

Seeing her dad suffer because of the inequality of health care, Joyce vowed, at age nine, to pursue a career in the medical sciences. She made God a promise that she would find a way to help care for her people. “In Junior high I was valedictorian, so interested in science that I read everything about medicine I could get my hands on,” Joyce said. By tenth grade, her dad was seriously ill. Without easy access to specialized care, he died in 1969 when Joyce was seventeen. “I was both elated because he had his wish of going to God, and heartbroken as he was my father.” His death reinforced the strength of her decision to dedicate her life to saving others.

A Difficult Path

Joyce obtained a one-year merit scholarship to Savannah State where she lived off campus to save money, worked part time, and majored in pre-med. It seemed she was well on her way until her mom suffered a massive stroke when Joyce was in her junior year. She managed to graduate, but her career path took a new turn. Before obtaining a master’s degree, Joyce again had to work to earn money, pumping gas and working as a phone solicitor until she found employment at Emory University’s Grady Hospital in Atlanta. There she worked as a research assistant in the department of rheumatology and immunology. Eventually, grateful for a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, she returned to school for her master’s degree at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “I was thrilled to do research in the same lab where George Washington Carver once worked!” After graduating from Tuskegee with an MA in 1986 (where she had done graduate work as well at the University of Illinois and the Catholic University in Washington, DC), Joyce moved to New York and accepted a grant research associate position at Mt. Sinai Hospital in the Neurology department, where she worked with monoclonal antibodies, her field of expertise.

Turning Disrespect into Respect and Praise

“In order to see the good, we have to experience the bad,” Joyce tells me. Today she is dressed in a red, silky robe with tassels, her hair loose in curls. Her nails are manicured and, as we talk, she lotions her hands. Again, I am struck by both the humility and authority of this lady. “I’m assertive,” she laughs, “like my dad.” That assertiveness served her well through a variety of difficult times. Her next position was in a company in Massachusetts, a long commute from New York where she continued to care for her mother. In her research position, Joyce developed five antibodies that still carry her initials, JR, as part of their designated names. Moving closer to home, she accepted a position in New Jersey in 1989; two days later, her mother died. “A man’s word is his bond,” Joyce’s father taught her, and so she fulfilled her work agreement in spite of being confronted there with persistent and overt racism―unfortunately not the first time she had endured such treatment from colleagues. “This job showed me the ugliness possible in this world,” she tells me.

In 1995 she left, “discouraged but not beaten,” and in 1996 accepted a position in Connecticut at Boehringer Ingelheim, eventually finding a scientific home in Product Development where she worked with great collegial support until 2004. Friendships that grew there remain to this day, and her long list of accomplishments are well known in the scientific community. The little girl from Georgia has more than fulfilled her pledge to help others. “If you want something bad enough you will make sacrifices,” Joyce says, another mantra she lives by.

The Importance of Sharing

 

Joyce entered Regional Hospice and Palliative Care on Sunday, November 13, 2016, and immediately enchanted staff and volunteers. One of her requests was that she have the opportunity to share her unique story. When I asked why, she replied “We learn how to live from one another. I suffered a lot of evil and meanness, but I survived.” She hopes that her determination, her love for her family, her dedication to her vocation, her unshakable faith, and her remarkable life might influence and guide others. Joyce and I concluded recording her life story just before Christmas 2016. Before turning off the recorder, I asked Joyce how it was for her now, being here at Regional Hospice. Closing her eyes for a moment, then turning to me with a smile―her “glow” that truly lights up the room―she said, “I am the most blessed individual in this space and time.”

Written by Regional Hospice Volunteer and Author, Cortney Davis