Meet the African American woman appointed OB-GYN in-chief at NY Presbyterian-Weill Cornell

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- As we celebrate Women's History Month, Eyewitness News wants to introduce you to the first African American woman appointed OB-GYN in chief at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Laura Riley has many goals she wants to accomplish while in this position. The high rate of maternal mortality in New York is number one at the top of her list.

As a little girl growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts Riley knew exactly what she wanted to be. She wanted to become a doctor like her idol Joe Gannon from the 1970s television show "Medical Center."

"That was my idea of medicine and that's what I wanted to do. I want to, like, save the world like this guy did," Dr. Riley said.

She would graduate from Harvard, despite being told she'd never make it. And she would get through tough years at medical school, all with the support of her family and the close-knit friendships she developed.

"There certainly weren't very many black women. But the few of us that there were, we stuck together like glue," she said.

Dr. Riley set out to prove herself. Her impressive experience specializing in high-risk obstetrics and infectious diseases got the attention of New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell.

"You know, it was, it was an opportunity to lead an academic program that was a little bit sleepy. But on the verge of something great, you know," she said.

As OB-GYN in-chief, Dr. Riley led the opening of the state-of-the-art Alexandra Cohen Hospital for women and newborns this past August.

The busy hospital can accommodate 7,000 births a year. Dr. Riley says she knew when she took the job she'd want to address maternal mortality among women of color in New York.

"So when I came here, you know, two years ago, almost three years ago now, you know, black women were dying, were 12 times more likely to die in New York City, than white women having a baby. This is, this is 2018," she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among other developed countries, and New York is among the worst in the nation. In fact, the state experienced a 60% increase in maternal mortality over the past decade.

Dr. Riley says encouraging patients to speak up and doing everything in their power to make sure they listen is a top priority.

"We just need to make sure that we've got that, that team that really respects, all the different cultures of the people that we know take care of. And you know, part of that is just understanding those cultures. And with those diverse, you know with diverse faculty and diverse residents, you know and facilitating conversation I think is huge," Dr. Riley said.

Dr. Riley admits this is slow work, it's not going to be an overnight success. But she is happy with the progress they've made so far, and she's looking forward to a day when women, all women, can truly feel safe and heard.

RELATED: What is Women's History Month, and why do we celebrate it

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