Rickquel “Rikki” Tripp, MD, MPH, is board-certified in emergency medicine and emergency medicine services (EMS) and is a clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Dr. Tripp is also medical director of four EMS agencies: Penn Hills, Lower Valley, SouthEast Regional, and Foxwall. She is the first vice chair of diversity, health equity, and inclusion within the Department of Emergency Medicine and first vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion of UPMC Graduate Medical Education. A former flight surgeon with the U.S. Navy on active duty, Dr. Tripp is currently a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
What was it like growing up in Pittsburgh’s Upper St. Clair community?
Even though I was the only Black student in my elementary school, I didn’t realize I was different from my classmates. I just recall one incident when I was abruptly moved from my regular fourth-grade classroom into a special needs class because the school thought I had a delayed speech problem. I did not; I was just very shy and reserved back then, speaking only when spoken to and more intent on listening and observing. In retrospect, it reflects a real bias to make that assumption without any testing on a Black child who made good grades and — most of all — without first consulting my parents.
Though you were born and raised here in Pittsburgh, your family has long been active in the struggle for civil rights and social activism. Can you share those roots?
As a young man, my dad was involved in UHURU, a radical black student organization in Detroit, Michigan, that challenged capitalism, racism, and imperialism in the 1960s, similarly to the Black Panthers. He joined my uncle, Luke Tripp, who was one of the co-founders and chair, to lead activities and numerous demonstrations against racially discriminatory practices of businesses in the Black community that did not employ Black people or restricted them to low-level jobs, anti-draft campaigns against the Vietnam War, and against police brutality and the anti-Black police department. My dad went on to Harvard to earn his MBA and work in industry. Uncle Luke earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan and became a college professor.
You became a mathematics and pre-med major at Bryn Mawr College. What was it like to attend one of the “Seven Sister” colleges?
I didn’t plan to go to a women’s college, but it was an incredibly empowering and liberating experience. Bryn Mawr honed my analytical, critical thinking, leadership, and engagement skills. It prepared me to walk into a male-dominated environment and speak my ideas with confidence and no hesitation. I’m a feminist at heart and co-ed schools are great. But there’s a difference when you’re learning with all women. You are laser focused on developing your intellectual prowess, confidence, and courage.
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For three years during college, I attended Pitt’s Summer Premed Academic Enrichment Program (SPAEP). I was exposed to different medical specialties and was involved in research. I have SPAEP friends from all over the country that I still keep in touch with today.
What was your path to medical school?
I was admitted to medical schools at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, and Pitt. My mentors at Bryn Mawr and SPAEP advised me to choose an institution with a strong support system where people interacted like a family. Since that felt true at all four schools, I couldn’t decide where to go, so my mother put all the names in a hat. I drew Johns Hopkins twice — and that’s where I went.
Hamilton is my favorite musical, and my favorite line from the production is, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” That’s literally how I want to live my life: I don’t want to miss a single opportunity. While in medical school, I was fortunate to be admitted to the Zuckerman Fellows Program at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Center was founded by former presidential advisor David Gergen. I left Johns Hopkins for a year to earn my Master of Public Health at Harvard School of Public Health. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to work and learn from him. It was a fantastic, priceless experience.
While I was in Boston, I also became involved with a dance troupe called Gumboots. It carried on the tradition of a very physical form of stomp dancing started in South Africa during apartheid by gold mine workers who wore heavy black gumboots. We helped spread that cultural history at schools all over the Boston area.
When did you decide to go into emergency medicine?
Emergency medicine was very new when I was in medical school. It was an elective, not part of core rotations. Though it interested me, I planned to specialize in urology at the time.
I applied for a health professions scholarship from the U.S. Navy to help pay for my medical education. That meant when I graduated, I was committed to serving for four years, plus one year for my internship. I began with a general surgery internship at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. It was there that I realized that emergency medicine — not urology — was the better medical career path for me.
Instead of spending the next four years doing a general medical officer (GMO) tour, I took advantage of the opportunity to become a flight surgeon. After nine months of training, I chose the rotary wing — so helicopters became my platform the next four years. I was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, flying with four squadrons. I also had a small primary care clinic as part of the assignment. It was a wonderful, rewarding experience that I was honored to be selected to have.
What brought you to UPMC and your involvement in diversity and inclusion?
After the Navy, I did an emergency medicine residency at the University of Chicago Medical Center. I came back to my hometown in 2016 for an EMS fellowship at UPMC. I thought then — and still feel the same way today — that Pitt’s EMS program is the best in the country. I’m proud to be part of its faculty as well as the medical director for four very different EMS agencies surrounding Pittsburgh.
My mentor was Jeannette South-Paul, MD, the first African American and first woman to be named a permanent chair of a department at Pitt’s School of Medicine. She knew I had done some diversity recruitment during my residency in Chicago, so one of the first things she asked me was, “Rikki, are you involved in PICUP (Physician Inclusion Council of UPMC and Pitt)?” Before I could even ask what PICUP was, she enlisted me as the chair of its networking committee — which I have continued to hold this position over the last five years.
I quickly realized how difficult and challenging it is for people of color to connect at such a vast and large-size institution like UPMC. It’s so easy for things to be siloed. As the networking committee chair of PICUP, we offer a variety of programs and events to make it easy to get involved and create relationships to break down these silos. For example, Sip for Success helps welcome new people into our diverse community. Sip for Survival features discussions with senior leaders about what we’re doing to recruit and retain underrepresented faculty, residents, and fellows along with addressing strategies to build a more inclusive culture and environment.
In 2020, I applied for and was selected as the first vice chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for UPMC Graduate Medical Education (GME). Among the projects I helped to create, we transformed the White Coats Against Racism & Injustice Kneel demonstration, which was started by the Department of Medicine in response to George Floyd’s death in 2020, to expand to include the participation over 10 UPMC hospitals in Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania. Additional projects include upstander training, anti-racism curriculum FOREM (Framework of Race Equity Medicine), and recruitment events such as Meet & Greet UPMC Night and Virtual URiM Recruitment Diversity Brunches. We enthusiastically collaborate with other departments for celebrations like Black History Month, Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, Juneteenth, and Pride Month. We’re also involved in national associations for underrepresented students such as the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) and Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), providing engagement, recruitment, mentorship, and advising support.
How are you personally working to make a difference in these leadership roles?
We’re trying to streamline and coordinate diversity and inclusion training for medical students, residents, fellows, and faculty, so we’re speaking with one voice with the goal of more unified understanding. When a problem is raised, instead of becoming defensive, everyone involved can acknowledge the bias and seek to find a solution as a community.
When we talk about patients, I really emphasize a person’s social determinants of health — how and where they work, what they eat, and where and how they live. We may complain when a patient comes to an emergency department in the middle of the night for help with a minor problem. What we don’t know is that this person lacks child care, has to work until midnight, and has to take two buses to get to us. As a working mother myself, I’ve come to understand that we all need to step back before passing judgment or bias.
You’re currently working on a documentary about Freedom House in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Can you share some details?
I’m so passionate about this project. The original Freedom House is where the history of EMS got its start — not just here in Pittsburgh, but nationwide. I’m working as the producer with a production company to chronicle its legacy. There’s so much to be proud of and we are lucky to have members of the original Freedom House team still with us — like its co-founder, Philip Hallen, and John Moon, one of the first paramedics who went on to become assistant chief for City of Pittsburgh EMS. To paraphrase Hamilton, “we are not going to throw away our shot” when it comes to this opportunity!
Freedom House 2.0 today is still giving disenfranchised people a second chance. When each new cohort starts, I try to visit to get people excited about the opportunity. The program supplies what they need to get to class, like bus or gas cards, as well as counseling. Students also get a basic stipend to help with living expenses. At the end, they are guaranteed an interview for employment with the City of Pittsburgh EMS. They also can interview for other UPMC job postings. As least half of the graduates have been placed in UPMC jobs. It’s a real success story.
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