Education has been a core value in surgeon's family for centuries – Fredericksburg.com

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Dr. Henry Wicker Jr. sits in a pre-operating room at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
Dr. Henry Wicker (front middle) sits in a pre-operating room with RN Leah Blake (left), RN Cassandra Jordan-Young (middle left) and CSTFA Amie Gladden-Morales at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
Dr. Henry Wicker sits in a pre-operating room at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
A.E.P. Albert, the son of a slave, was the first of Wicker’s ancestors to earn a medical degree.
In 1981, Henry Wicker (center) celebrates graduation from Tulane University with his parents, Geralyn and Dr. Henry Wicker Sr.
When Dr. Henry Wicker Jr. came to Fredericksburg as the first Black surgeon more than 30 years ago, he said some people looked at him like he stepped off a spaceship.
Others didn’t want to see him at all. There were a handful of patients who didn’t realize his race when they made their appointments. He’d walk into the room to introduce himself, say a few words and step out so they could change into a patient gown. When he returned, they were gone.
Even when a prominent physician started recommending him, the referral came with a caveat.
“He would warn them that I was ‘colored,’ ” Wicker said.
Meanwhile, there was the opposite reaction in the Black community. People were so excited by his practice, they came, even if they didn’t need surgery.
“They just wanted to see a Black doctor,” he said.
How times have changed.
Wicker, 63, has become the surgeon other doctors pick to perform their procedures, said Crystal Jernigan, director of surgical services at Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center. His general surgery practice initially included everything from breast cancer to vascular issues but narrowed over time as Wicker specialized in the abdominal area.
Nurse Leah Blake, who said other doctors regularly seek insight from operating nurses like her when they need work done, put it this way: “You want your hernia done, you go to Dr. Wicker.”
Wicker probably would laugh at her words while also being a little embarrassed by the accolades. He doesn’t seek the limelight, but agreed to a story after HCA Virginia, which owns the Spotsylvania hospital, highlighted him as a health care hero during Black History Month.
He believes his family has an “interesting and inspiring history” and he’s proud of the trails they blazed. His great-great-grandfather, A.E.P. Albert, was the son of a slave, but he earned a medical degree in the 1880s and became a staunch supporter of civil rights in Louisiana.
Albert’s wife, Octavia, also was born into slavery, but was educated in Georgia and wrote a book about slave experiences called “The House of Bondage.”
The Wicker family has a copy of that book, tattered and worn. The surgeon believed it was the only one left until scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. included it in a collection of Black female authors from the 19th century.
The emphasis his great-great-grandparents placed on education has remained a core family value over centuries.
“Every single one of their descendants was at least a college graduate and most of us have advanced degrees,” Wicker said. “That’s unusual to have a line go back into the 19th century for a Black family. We’re talking about five generations.”
Many have become teachers, like his brother and oldest daughter. Still others entered the medical field, including Wicker’s father, the late Dr. Henry Wicker Sr., who was the first Black ophthalmologist at George Washington University Hospital in the 1960s.
The younger Wicker didn’t plan to go into medicine.
“I was gonna be a bomber pilot, that was what I was intent on doing,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I was just fascinated with military aviation. I had model planes I made hanging from my ceiling and the B-52 hung right over my bed. I was going to be a B-52 pilot.”
He even earned an Air Force scholarship. But in those years after Vietnam—the late 1970s—Wicker said the country had “no taste for the military . . . and the ROTC was not a popular place to be.”
When he learned the Air Force was looking for doctors, not pilots, he changed direction. It wasn’t a total about-face, as he already was familiar with the world of medicine from spending time with his father and his contemporaries.
His family lived in Washington, where his mother, Geralyn, taught in inner-city schools and made it her “life’s work to impart the thirst for education in children who had very little in the form of guidance or security,” Wicker said.
She wanted him to apply to Harvard. But he’d also spent a lot of time with family in New Orleans, so when he got early acceptance into Tulane University, Wicker didn’t apply anywhere else. He did his undergraduate work there and received his medical degree from its School of Medicine in 1985.
The choice of Tulane was especially meaningful to Wicker’s father, who didn’t have the same opportunities. Legalized segregation—the notion that opportunities offered were “separate but equal”—started in New Orleans and was enforced to the degree that any Black who challenged it was arrested. Tulane was clearly off limits to Blacks in the elder Wicker’s day.
“Every time my father would come to visit on campus, he would make the remark: ‘You know, I couldn’t even walk on the same side of the street and now I’m walking with you on campus,’” Wicker recalled.
As a young man, Wicker sensed his father’s pride but probably didn’t fathom the magnitude of what he felt.
“I feel so much differently about things now, looking back as an old man with children, than I did when I was young and just excited about being away from home,” he said.
Wicker did his internship and residency at Howard University Hospitals. His mentor was Dr. Lasalle Leffall Jr., an internationally known surgeon and educator who trained more than 4,500 medical students.
Wicker still has the “Chairman’s Award,” presented to him by Leffall in June 1990, hanging in his office at the Pratt Medical Center across from Spotsylvania Regional. The award was presented to a resident with superior skills “who is deemed by the department to demonstrate the attributes necessary for a safe and skillful surgeon.”
Wicker treasures the award because Leffall instilled in his students that surgeons needed stellar skills and a hefty dose of humanity. While others of that era placed surgeons on pedestals—believing that technical competency trumped everything else, including compassion—Lefall imparted “the sense that you were the servants.”
Wicker never forgot the lesson.
“He was larger than life, magnanimous, just a superb human being,” Wicker said. “Still to this day, I spend time trying to emulate him. Never successful, but always trying.”
Those who’ve worked with him—and have been cared for by him—would say otherwise.
“I consider him my savior,” said Valentin Aksilenko, who came to America from Russia in 1993, three years after Wicker opened his practice. “He saved my life, not one time but several times.”
Aksilenko’s long history with the surgeon began with a diagnosis of Stage 4 rectal cancer and involved a complicated and difficult initial surgery—and there have been many since then. The former KGB operative and Kremlin staff member was taken back at 10 a.m. for that first procedure and his wife, Irene, remembers with keen clarity sitting in the waiting room. It was after midnight when Wicker emerged.
“I was alone, lying on the sofa, and he came out and he was tired, his eyes were bloodshot” as the surgery involved more organs than initially thought, she said.
Irene Aksilenko began to cry when Wicker explained the procedure had resulted in a colostomy bag, meaning her husband’s waste had to be diverted in a different direction.
“I was crying on his shoulder and he was trying to calm me down and soothe me, telling me it’s not the end of the world, that people live with this condition for years,” she said. “It’s been almost 20 years already and we owe Val’s life to him. No doubt, no doubt about it.”
That story probably wouldn’t surprise David McKnight, the former CEO of Spotsylvania Regional. Wicker was chief of staff and “one of the patriarchs of the hospital” when McKnight first joined the team in 2015. He came to discover that Wicker is a perfectionist.
“He demands the absolute best, which to some can be intimidating. However, it makes you better,” McKnight said. “He is an incredible teacher, and if you want to see how things should be done, you watch him. Patients love him because of the way he can explain things. If he needed to draw a diagram to better explain something, he would draw it himself.”
But perhaps the best testament to Wicker’s skills comes from Lawrence Davies, Fredericksburg’s first Black mayor and a man renowned for his calming influence during troubling times.
Like others, he visited Wicker for a medical matter.
“He spared me from surgery that was unnecessary and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that,” Davies said.
As the years passed, Wicker went from being “a bit of a curiosity,” as he called himself in his early days in Fredericksburg, to a surgeon known for his kindness and competence, not his color.
“He is highly respected and appreciated as a physician,” Davies said. “Not as a Black physician but as a physician in the community.”

Surgeon enjoys wildlife photography, cooking and his handwriting is an art in itself. 
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
cdyson@freelancestar.com
The proportion of Black doctors in the United States has increased by only 4 percentage points in the past 120 years while the share of doctors who are Black men has not changed since 1940, according to a UCLA study published in April.
A researcher who analyzed data from U.S. Census Bureau surveys between 1900 and 2018 also found a significant income gap between white and Black male physicians. The disparity “could reflect a combination of pay discrimination and unequal access for physicians to pursue careers in more lucrative specialties,” according to the UCLA newsroom.
In the United States, white people make up 63 percent of the total population and 65 percent of doctors and physicians, according to the DataUSA website.
The rates are flipped for the second-highest group with medical groups. Asians make up 21 percent of doctors yet only 6 percent of the population.
Blacks represent 12 percent of the American population, but only 6 percent of doctors and physicians.
—Cathy Dyson
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By STAFF REPORTS
Dr. Henry Wicker Jr. sits in a pre-operating room at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
Dr. Henry Wicker (front middle) sits in a pre-operating room with RN Leah Blake (left), RN Cassandra Jordan-Young (middle left) and CSTFA Amie Gladden-Morales at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
Dr. Henry Wicker sits in a pre-operating room at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Spotsylvania on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022.
A.E.P. Albert, the son of a slave, was the first of Wicker’s ancestors to earn a medical degree.
In 1981, Henry Wicker (center) celebrates graduation from Tulane University with his parents, Geralyn and Dr. Henry Wicker Sr.
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