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Turning Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones

By Yvonne Thornton, MD

Since the age of eight, I have wanted to be an obstetrician, delivering babies. Being an author was not in my consciousness as a young woman. However, the journey to write a book came from my mother’s request to write a book about our family. The seed was innocently planted when I was an OB/GYN resident, during a conversation with my mother. She told me that all she wanted was to have our story told in a book that would be in the library. She wanted to let the world know that with education, focus and determination, how her little “nappy-headed” daughters from the housing projects became successful independent women of whom she was so proud. When my mother told me her request, I was somewhat taken aback because I wasn’t a writer. I delivered babies for a living. I told her that I had little time to sleep much less to write a book. However, after she died, my mother’s wish became my quest, my obsession, my new goal in life.

I had the story. I just needed someone with the right skill and temperament to help me write my story.  It wasn’t easy. It took me 18 years to find a collaborative writer and get my first book published!!  I searched for years to find the right person who had substance, writing talent and an insight about the struggles of my parents. Writer after writer came and went. Either they wanted an enormous amount of money to help me write a book or their writing skills and temperament were not suited to write the kind of book I wanted written. One day, I saw a reference in The New York Times to the American Society of Journalists and Authors and its Dial-a-Writer service. Dorothy Beach, who ran the service, put me in touch with one writer who had too many assignments to take on another, a second writer who wanted a year’s salary in advance, and a third writer who said she wasn’t interested in writing a book but thought the Reader’s Digest might want to run an article about the family. That writer was Jo Coudert. Ironically, Jo Coudert had authored my husband’s favorite book, Advice from a Failure.

I had finally found the writer I knew could do justice to my parents’ story, but she wasn’t interested. I was relentless. Once or twice a year for the next five years, I would call Jo to ask if she might possibly change her mind about writing the Thornton story as a book. Jo was as resolute as I was persistent. However, after several years of convincing her to help me, she finally capitulated.

Jo and I began meeting all day every Saturday, Jo making notes and taping, while I retold the story of the ditchdigger’s daughters: how we were born and grew and were molded into becoming successes by a father who labored at two jobs and a mother who cleaned houses. With the book outline and representative chapters in hand, our literary agent approached many publishers. To our chagrin, no one wanted to publish the book. The publishers said it wasn’t marketable because the book had no conflict. But persistence does prevail and a small publishing house in New York did take a chance and The Ditchdigger’s Daughters was published in 1995. The book has never been out of print, was condensed by the Reader’s Digest, translated into 19 languages and was adapted into an award-winning telefilm for cable television.

My new memoir, SOMETHING TO PROVE takes a closer look at my nuclear family, my struggles and the life lessons I have learned throughout my years as a physician, a wife, a mother and a woman. This second memoir continues the saga of my journey in medicine and was written to serve as a roadmap for young professional women who need to balance their careers with managing a household and raising children.  The book takes a sharp look at the hierarchy of academic medicine, misogyny and racial prejudice in the working world. But more than just telling my story, SOMETHING TO PROVE speaks to women, young and old, of all races and socio-economic status, giving them dynamic messages of empowerment, and the courage to face the pitfalls that so often pop up along their own personal roads to success. With each chapter opening with the wise sayings of my father, I try to be faithful to the memory of my parents; in that the inspiring lessons they taught me would not stop with me, but would touch the lives of my children and all those I have touched. 

About the author: Dr. Thornton is a double Board-certified perinatal consultant in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine. She is a Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Thornton blogs at

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