A Mission to Create an Equitable Health Care System

Mar 08, 2022

During Women’s History Month, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is profiling pioneering Women leaders who have made a mark on our community. Throughout the month, we’ll be sharing stories of these important figures and showcasing their work to make Fairfield County and our state a stronger, more equitable community.

Tiffany Donelson
President & CEO, Connecticut Health Foundation

As the daughter of a successful professional, Tiffany Donelson experienced the benefits and relative ease of upper-middle-class life during her early childhood.

Then her parents’ divorce changed everything.

“I remember at the time my mother was going back to school to become an educator, and we were on Medicaid,” said Donelson. “And our family doctor, who was a Black woman, specifically said to us that her practice didn’t normally take Medicaid patients, but that since she liked our family and had seen us before when we still had private insurance, that she would continue to have us as patients.

“She said this with a little pain in her voice because we were actually the type of patients she personally wanted to see but wasn’t supposed to take on because of her practice.”

While Donelson didn’t fully realize it at the time, her formative experiences living on varying levels of the socioeconomic ladder would be instrumental in her ultimately pursuing a career focused on health equity.

Her career journey that led to her current role as President and CEO of the Connecticut Health Foundation has also been influenced by the unique challenges of being a Black woman professional.

“As women, and particularly for women of color, we have to know that we are capable,” said Donelson. “The world will constantly try to tell you what you’re not capable of, so we have to know what we can do and then we have to walk in competence and think about how we’re going to use our capabilities to not only propel ourselves, but others, forward so that we can make this world a better place for our daughters and granddaughters.”

A mission borne out of loss
While her experience with the doctor’s office provided a glimpse of the degrading treatment patients with Medicaid sometimes face, another pivotal event in Tiffany’s life shaped her understanding of the life-and-death reality of health care inequities related to race and social status.

While Tiffany was in college, her cousin, who was 34 at the time and working as a contractor, became seriously ill. Lacking health insurance, he had no other option than to rely on emergency rooms and his local community health center for his primary care.

For months, he went in and out of the health care system, being constantly misdiagnosed and never receiving the proper testing he needed — not even a blood test — simply because the hospitals didn’t think he would pay for it.

Within a few months, Donelson’s cousin was in so much pain that eventually, through a personal connection, her uncle was able to get him admitted as a patient into the Emory University Hospital system.

Once admitted at Emory, Donelson’s cousin received the proper testing that he needed all along.

But it was too late.

He was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and died a short time later.

“So all of my work is about getting access to those who can’t get care,” Donelson said. “It’s thinking of my cousin who didn’t get the care he deserved that could have saved his life. This is why I focus on the way we design our systems, so people can have access to the care they deserve in our state.”

Through her work leading the Connecticut Health Foundation, Donelson has led the independent health philanthropy’s work in grantmaking, policy advancement, strategic communications and leadership development.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but every once in a while, we have these incremental wins that show me change is possible,” Donelson said. “When we saw our state expand access and coverage throughout Connecticut based in part on the research we conducted, it’s these glimmers of hope that keep me motivated around this work.”

Giving voice to those who don’t have one
While Donelson is proud of the progress being made, she knows there is much more work to be done to bring about the systemic changes needed to make health care more equitable.

She draws inspiration and motivation from her family and community.

“As a Black woman leading, I look to my daughters,” Donelson said. “My goal is to create a system where they will have access to an equitable health care system and that it happens either in their or their kid’s lifetime. I’m accountable to my girls and to all the people who look like me but don’t have the position I have.”

While achieving systemic equity is not an easy journey, Donelson’s story shows that with hope and hard work, change is possible.

“I want us to be in an environment where a woman who looks like me does not have to go through the same issues and struggles as I did because of gender and race,” Donelson said. “I want us to be in a place where an individual can have access to the care that they need, and that when they walk into any health care facility, they are treated equally and get the care they deserve no matter where they enter into the system, or how they entered into it.”

And her goal for creating an equitable health system doesn’t stop with patient care. Donelson also hopes that as a Black woman in a position of power, she will help create change in the administrative and management sectors of the health care industry.

“We need more representation of women who look like me to be given the chance to have positions of power,” Donelson said. “To be in a place where every young girl could see themselves in these positions and have access to the support around education and mentorship and other resources that are needed in order to get to this point.”

Join us in person at the Greenwich Hyatt or virtually via our livestream for our Fund for Women & Girls 2022 Luncheon! Get inspired by keynote speaker Anita Hill, learn about our newest signature initiative, and support women and girls across Fairfield County in achieving their best lives. Learn more: FCCFoundation.org/FWG22