On a hot, sunny day in August 1963, a 13-year-old Wilmer Petite stood with his family along the reflective pool at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the March on Washington’s keynote speaker: Martin Luther King, Jr. That day, Wilmer saw something that would stay with him forever. “Their eyes,” Dr. Petite said. “Their eyes burned with determination and focus, as if they were saying ‘no more - we will not take this injustice anymore.’”
Dr. Petite was referring to a group of elderly women at the March who walked past him on that memorable day. He was too far from the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream'' speech, but he would never forget the determined look on the women’s faces.
“Those women made the journey from Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas, and were walking with their canes, crutches, and walkers,” Dr. Petite said. “Who knows the horrors and injustices they’d seen in their lifetimes?” Dr. Petite felt their fire then and still feels it now.
By 1976, Dr. Petite had finished medical school and started his career as a resident at Harlem Hospital Center. It was at the turn of the Civil Rights Movement, and for the first time in history, African Americans and other people of color were entering the professional workforce in significant numbers. Many, like Dr. Petite, gravitated toward certain professional hubs, Harlem Hospital Center being one of them.
“Harlem was the mecca at that time, the embodiment of the Black experience,” said Dr. Petite. “Harlem Hospital Center was making history in its own way.” This was an opportunity for young, idealistic professionals to give back to their people and their communities, which Dr. Petite could not pass on. “It was truly a golden age,” Dr. Petite said.
It was during his time as an attending physician that he vowed to always remain committed to his people and communities in need. Dr. Petite promised that no matter the ladders he climbed or the accomplishments he achieved, he would never forget to give back to his community. Dr. Petite soon became a full-time attending physician at Harlem Hospital Center in academic medicine and had a faculty appointment with Columbia University. He remained committed to his promise and continued serving his community and his people.
In the mid-1980s—following his marriage to his now-wife of 40 years, Maureen, and the birth of their son, Phil—Dr. Petite transitioned into private practice, serving communities in Brooklyn and Queens. During this time, he served as consulting cardiologist for a medical group of minority physicians that he trained with at Harlem Hospital Center. “This was truly a memorable moment for me,” said Dr. Petite. “It was a testament to how far we’ve come as a people.”
In 2021, Dr. Petite decided to return to public healthcare systems and became the Head Cardiologist of the COVID-19 Center of Excellence at New York Health + Hospitals/Gotham Health, Tremont. “I chose to join PAGNY because of its mission and commitment to underserved communities,” said Dr. Petite. “These communities have a particular set of challenges—drug abuse and poverty, to name a few. It is important that they know we are here to help them, and access to quality healthcare is possible.” Dr. Petite believes that an increased presence in the community will begin to address the needs of the communities PAGNY serves.
Today, Dr. Petite continues his commitment to his community and holds steadfast to a promise he made to himself 60 years ago. “Every time I think about giving up, I am reminded of those women I saw that day in Washington,” said Dr. Petite. “We can’t give up.”