Shelton surgeon becomes first Black woman to be Fairfield County Medical Association president

Dr. Camelia Lawrence, President of the Fairfield County Medical Association, smiles during an interview in the association’s headquarters in Shelton, Conn. March 10, 2023.
Dr. Camelia Lawrence, President of the Fairfield County Medical Association, smiles during an interview in the association’s headquarters in Shelton, Conn. March 10, 2023.Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — Since her childhood, Camelia Lawrence longed to heal others.  

Lawrence, born and raised in Jamaica, heard her calling as she watched her grandfather struggle with an illness. While she was unable to help her grandfather, she turned that dream into a successful reality — and became a groundbreaker in the process.  

Lawrence is director of breast surgery with Hartford Healthcare at the Hospital of Central Connecticut and Midstate Medical Center and assistant professor of surgery at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Earlier this year, she was named president of the Fairfield County Medical Association — the first Black woman to hold the title in the organization’s 231-year history.   

“I’ve always desired a career in medicine,” said Lawrence, at Fairfield County Medical Association’s office in Shelton. “I grew up in an environment where my grandfather was very sick, so there was always passion to join the healing ministry.”  

"This was a calling,” she added. “I couldn’t envision myself doing anything else. For me, it is not work, that’s why I enjoy it so much.”  

Lawrence’s journey began in Jamaica, then her parents emigrated to the United States for her high school years. After graduating from Fordham University, Lawrence went into education, teaching eighth graders health and science at a public school in Flushing, Queens, N.Y.  

But her desire to enter the medical field never waned, so in her mid-20s, Lawrence attended University of Rochester School of Medicine, earning her medical degree before completing her residency at New York Medical College. She then entered her fellowship training at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, Santa Monica, in breast surgical oncology.  

“I am the first in my family to graduate college and the first physician in my family,” she said, “but I could not have done it without the support of so many people within my community extending a helping hand.  

But Lawrence, a Shelton resident for the past eight years, said success did not come without struggle.  

“As I look back, I did not get here without struggles … to begin with, when I started my journey, I didn’t know anyone who looked like me who was doing what I wanted to do,” Lawrence said. “But anything worth having does not come easily. I do think as a woman of color, there is a sense of responsibility to further shed light of the inequities and disparities we face.”  

Lawrence said a major hurdle is overcoming established stereotypes.  

“There are often times expectations set for someone who looks like you, and when you defy those stereotypes, it can be hard for others to accept,” Lawrence said. “More so in medicine, I always felt the need to prove myself. The absence of an inclusive environment is challenging." 

Lawrence said the combination of being a woman of color and a surgeon in a male-dominated field was at times taxing. But she said she welcomed the challenge, and she says it made her even better in her field.  

It was during her time at the University of Rochester that she turned her focus to surgery and women’s health.  

Her goal, she says, was to ensure women have access to timely care.  

“Breast cancer is one of most commonly diagnosed cancers — research shows that one in eight women will be affected by this disease — and I saw that there was a need for that level of service and care,” Lawrence said. “I’ve always enjoyed using my hands, and enjoyed being in an operating room. 

She said that helping women deal with breast cancer, who later go on to lead normal lives, is a source of great satisfaction.  

Lawrence is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a board-certified surgeon specializing in benign and malignant breast disease. She has fellowship training in advanced breast cancer surgery, including skin and nipple-sparing mastectomy, sentinel node biopsy, and oncoplastic techniques.  

Lawrence has recently turned her attention to leading a physician organization with nearly 1,000 members.  

“The landscape of medicine is constantly evolving and more than ever, agility, networking and unity amongst physicians, is paramount which is why Fairfield County Medical Association is so vital to our profession," said Lawrence  

“The practice of medicine has shifted primarily to outpatient settings so we must be deliberate and intentional in our efforts to nurture a more connected and supportive ecosystem for physicians and patients,” Lawrence added.  

Lawrence sees herself a role model for youngsters. She is visible and accessible, and sees herself presenting an image that “you too can accomplish whatever you put your mind to, underscoring importance of hard work and commitment.”  

Founded in 1792 by a Special Act of the Connecticut General Assembly, the purpose of the Fairfield County Medical Association is to bring together Fairfield County's doctors to increase their knowledge and better educate the community about health.    

“Dr. Lawrence is a recognized and respected leader in the medical community and Fairfield County Medical Association is very fortunate to benefit from her leadership,” said Mark Thompson, Fairfield County Medical Association's executive director.  “Dr. Lawrence’s enthusiasm for the medical profession will serve as a magnet for FCMA connecting the various disciplines within the practice of medicine.” 

Lawrence plans to continue to provide solutions and opportunities through FCMA resources that will help physicians with their field of medicine and the communities they serve.   

She also intends to help physicians in Fairfield County grow professionally by leveraging assets and tools to support their work and enhance the care delivered to their patients.  

“It’s been an interesting journey, and I would not have had it any other way,” Lawrence said. “I wish there had not been so many hurdles along the way … I could have done without them, but they have made me stronger, wiser, and more resilient. It made me who I am today. I’m an optimist. I find the good in whatever challenge I am facing. It’s a great feeling to rise above adversity with grace and grit.”