When Toni Zink declared that God told her she was going to be a doctor one day her mother had every reason to be skeptical. Her daughter was only 4 years old. But then again, Toni Zink was a determined young lady who never let something as inconsequential as youth get in the way of destiny. Nor were their modest circumstances an impediment. At the time, Toni and her mom, a secretary, were living in a converted garage — essentially a shack with a tin roof — in her grandmother’s backyard in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward. Even so, the two dreamed big. It paid off. Toni Zink not only became a physician, she became a Community Health Center physician, at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center in Kansas City, MO.
“My mother believed me — that’s the crazy part,” says Zink. “It’s one thing to believe in yourself, it’s another to have someone you love believe in you. She could have led me to a more practical career. She didn’t look at our physical circumstances and tell me we couldn’t afford education. What she did say is, ‘Okay, we’ll get you there.’”
Zink’s mother, Vivian Savoy, remembers that moment to the slightest detail — how they were sitting on the bed, working on a school project. Toni, a quiet, studious child, who always chose her words carefully, described her plan in unusual detail — she would study hard and become a doctor and make sure her family would have everything that they needed.
“You never know what a child wants to become,” says Savoy. “There are millions of Tonis out there, children with dreams and who are smart but live in poverty and don’t know that it’s a big world out there. I was determined that if my daughter wanted to be a doctor I would do everything in my power to make that happen for her. And that’s what I told her.”
Dr. Zink’s early experiences as a child visiting her local health center helped shape her inspiration toward a medical career. Generations of her family went to the health center for care.
“Our health center, the Lyon’s Clinic, was right down the street,” Zink recalls. “My whole family went there and we paid on a sliding fee scale. Everyone in that clinic lived in that neighborhood, including the people who worked there. It was a family atmosphere. People smiled at us when we walked through the door and went to go sit in the orange chairs in the waiting room. I felt supported. It seemed like we weren’t alone in our situation and that stayed with me.”
Dr. Zink found supportive influences throughout her formative years that helped her stay on a path to a medical career – like her stepfather, who provided love and support; public school teachers also recognized in the young student a precocious intellect. Ms. Savoy remembers Toni’s fourth grade teacher taking her aside to tell her that Zink was going to be valedictorian of the elementary school. The teacher advised Savoy that this was the time for her to consider sending her daughter to the prestigious college preparatory Kinkaid school across town, where she could thrive and be challenged academically. Not only was Zink accepted, she received a full scholarship. At the Kinkaid school Zink also found a mentor in the parent of a classmate, a doctor named Meredith Morgan, who encouraged Zink’s interest in medicine. Zink worked at his practice one summer and he took her under his wing. After graduation, Zink attended the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship (she is the first grandchild to earn a college degree) and completed medical school at Howard University.
Now, as a health center physician, it would seem like Zink’s life has come full circle, but there is still much left for her to do. “To whom much is given, much is required,” she says, underscoring that her work is also focused on mentoring and encouraging other young minds to follow their path, whether it’s speaking at a mentoring program at the local YMCA or talking to one of her patients. “Whenever someone asks me to speak, I am there. It just takes a few words to change the trajectory of someone’s life. I would not be here if not for my parents and the resources I was given. I need to pay it forward.”
Zink adds that her favorite days at Samuel U. Rodgers Health are Thursdays when the health center sees refugees — patients from all over the world. “A lot of our patients are from war-torn countries and they have PTSD and many problems as a result of the violence they have been exposed to. We also provide services like behavioral health. Preventive care is not something that they are familiar with, so we have to explain the value of getting immunizations, paps smears, etc. We try to provide for every patient who comes through our doors and treat them with dignity and respect. I remember what that was like as a child visiting a health center. To see providers who looked like me, who smiled at me — it was inspiring. So I talk to those kids who come in and I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. I don’t think we ask kids that often enough. You never know what a child is to become. I am living proof of that.”
Postscript: Dr. Zink believes that one’s quest to improve personal and professional growth is lifelong. She recently completed Harvard University’s prestigious Leadership Strategies for Evolving Health Care Executives program and is working to become a Chief Medical Officer. She is also awaiting approval to become a Civil Surgeon (a licensed physician certified by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to better serve Missouri’s refugee community.