Even for identical twins, Elana McDonald and Delana Wardlaw have a lot in common.
Both Philadelphia physicians, the sisters graduated together from Central High School (class number 251), Temple University, and Penn State’s College of Medicine. They inherited their parents’ belief in the power of education. They also learned well their mother’s lessons about standing up for yourself, for what you believe in, and for the people you love.
And if you ask which twin is the outgoing one and which is more demure, their answer doesn’t miss a beat:
“There is no quiet one,” says McDonald, chuckling. “Neither is quiet.”
They don’t want their patients to be, either.
Patient empowerment is a key mission for McDonald, a pediatrician, and Wardlaw, a family medicine doctor, in their community medical practices, their city and state advocacy and, increasingly, on a national level through social and broadcast media.
“TwinSisterDocs was created to promote health, wellness, self-advocacy, and address health disparities in underserved communities,” said Wardlaw.
They do this through what they call the three Ts: trust, translate, and transform.
“As trusted messengers,” Wardlaw said, “we provide culturally sensitive, accurate medical information, which translates into patients becoming active participants in their health care, and it leads to transformational outcomes.” That includes transformation for their communities as well as the individual patients themselves.
They’re no strangers to kudos. Wardlaw was one of two doctors named 2020 Pennsylvania Family Physician of the Year, nominated by patients and colleagues. Last September, McDonald was a the recipient of the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s Everyday Hero Award. And those are just the most recent awards.
Both sisters, now 46, have their own busy practices: for Wardlaw, Temple Physicians Inc. in Nicetown, and for McDonald, Memphis Street Pediatrics in Port Richmond, Pizzica Pediatrics in Kensington, and Castor Pediatrics in Northeast Philadelphia.
In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the sisters joined with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to fight barriers to virus testing by bringing it to people in Black and Latinx communities who were having difficulty accessing it. They’ve since refocused their efforts on educating people about the virus and the vaccine and addressing vaccine hesitancy.
Distrust of the medical establishment has persisted among some members of the Black community, not without good reason, the sisters acknowledge.
In their own family, their maternal grandmother died of breast cancer at the too-young age of 53. Wardlaw said their mother shared that lack of quality health care due to lack of insurance as well as distrust of the medical profession kept their grandmother from getting the help that might have saved her life.
It inspired Wardlaw to become a doctor. For both twins, it was early evidence of the disparities in access to quality medical care, including preventative care and early detection, that still affect underserved communities like those they grew up in and work in now.
In many ways, the lessons of their upbringing helped inform the activists they became.
Wardlaw and McDonald spent their earliest years in Strawberry Mansion and moved with their parents and older brother and sister to Germantown when they were in middle school.
They grew up with a strong sense of family and community. And their mother, a phlebotomist, and father, a building maintenance engineer, were strong advocates of education.
“My parents recognized early on that the quality of your education is dependent upon your zip code, and they were very diligent about making sure we received a quality education,” Wardlaw said.
From the first grade through the eighth grade, the sisters, along with their siblings and other children in their neighborhoods, were enrolled in a desegregation program by their parents that took them to higher-ranked public schools in the Far Northeast. Getting to their middle school required them to take three buses to and from, every day. They went on to Central High, one of the Philadelphia school district’s crown jewels, and Temple and Penn State.
“My parents let us know early on that education was the great equalizer,” Wardlaw said.
They found the Northeast schools they attended to be welcoming, even though their schoolmates and teachers were mostly Caucasian. That’s not to say there weren’t challenges.
“They didn’t understand your hair. They didn’t understand your skin,” McDonald said. “And when a teacher doesn’t understand your cultural nuances, you have to navigate all that stuff.”
But, the pediatrician said, those experiences helped make her the person she is today.
“I’m comfortable going into any room anywhere, having a discussion with anybody because I learned to interact with other people,” McDonald said.
She sees helping her patient families learn to do the same as part of her role.
“Sometimes families and parents have to be taught how to advocate for their children,” she said.
So if a patient is striving, she will talk to the parent about seeking out programs to nurture their gifts. If the child is struggling in school, she may brainstorm with the parent about finding the student extra help.
The sisters understand because they’re parents, too; both are married and still live in Philadelphia. Wardlaw has 12-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — and resides in East Oak Lane. And McDonald, who lives in Mount Airy, is the mother of two boys, 13 and 16. Just as their family was always there for them growing up, the sisters said they couldn’t do the work they’ve done without the support of their spouses and kids.
And the sister docs always have each other’s back.
“We are best friends, each other’s strongest cheerleader, but also each other’s biggest critic,” Wardlaw said. “It is great to have someone help you identify your strengths and weaknesses with any endeavor, at any time, without asking. Having her as a colleague is great because we can consult one another about clinical scenarios.”
Added McDonald, “We are always rooting for and encouraging each other. There is no competition. We’re great working within our own specialties, but we realized we can do something phenomenal working together.”
The twin docs also encourage patients to advocate for themselves with physicians — including them — by asking questions if they need more information and speaking up if a doctor is asking them to do something they can’t: like telling patients to eat more fresh vegetables, even though they live in a neighborhood without a grocery store, for example; or recommending that their child get more outdoor exercise, when they live in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence.
One of the reasons Wardlaw and McDonald started TwinSisterDocs was to give their voice a broader reach. They also do public speaking and push for their communities with elected officials and other leaders. And they advocate for increasing diversity in the medical profession and creating more mentoring programs to facilitate that diversity.
In the meantime, they believe that improving cultural competency in the medical field could help lessen health-care disparities that have contributed to high rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease — all of which disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Those chronic conditions have also made Black people more vulnerable to complications and, in some cases, even death from the coronavirus.
“This pandemic shined light on something that’s been happening for 100 years,” McDonald said. “The conditions, the lack of access to proper health care, the economic inequalities — the coronavirus just magnified all of this to the 100th degree.
“Once we get out of this pandemic — and this is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic — we want to [increase] access to quality health care so people have less chronic health conditions and, if they do have them, that they are well-maintained and treated.
“We’ve got to get out of this pandemic,” she said, “and we’ve got to learn.”