Well-known dermatologist and mentor to many, Dr. Charles Crutchfield III, passed away last month. He was 62. His impact was widespread and profound on students entering the field.
Crutchfield was one of the first medical professionals to tailor skin treatments for people of color. For years, he taught students at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
For some medical students, his guest lecture during the introduction to dermatology course drew them to consider specializing in dermatology.
Boraan Abdulkarim is one of those students. She’s a third-year medical student who is still considering her options for a specialty, but a lecture she watched presented by Crutchfield in November especially caught her attention.
“I thought I was alone in hearing his lecture and feeling the need to go shadow him. But if you ask any of my classmates actually interested in dermatology, we all did the same thing separately,” Abdulkarim said.
She remembered journaling the day of the lecture. Here’s what she wrote in her entry:
“He is a literal artist of medicine and dermatology – he mixes his own formulations, he has a streamlined system, he still finds moments to be genuine with the team and patients BECAUSE it’s artistry, not engineering. He gets consults for the toughest cases of common conditions because he listens to stories.”
Crutchfield received his master’s degree in molecular biology and genomics from the Mayo Clinic and went on to pursue a residency in dermatology at the University of Minnesota. He also co-authored a dermatology textbook and a children’s book on skincare. He and his wife started the annual “Crutchfield Lectureship,” which brought dermatology professionals to the University of Minnesota to lecture about treating skin conditions in people of color. He was selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and Minnesota Medicine recognized him as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota.
Abdulkarim felt that in his work, he always considered patients of color in a way that didn’t single them out as an “other.”
“It wasn’t something that he had as a little one-page slide or a little disclosure at the end. It was in the context of every case he presented, every disease he showed, he made a note of how this might vary in presentation; it didn’t feel like exclusion or singling out, the way dermatologists talk about skin of color,” she said. “He just included it in ‘This is how you care for a patient.’ He was unique in talking about it that way.”
An admiring student, Abdulkarim believes Crutchfield’s legacy will live on through the mentorship and teaching he did.
“When we all heard about the news (of his passing), I think we all kind of reminisced about the lecture he gave and the impact it had on us,” Abdulkarim said. “I’m really interested in the subject matter, and Dr. Crutchfield definitely helped me solidify feeling seen in that field.”
Dr. Ronda Farah, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota, was a medical student at the University of Minnesota when she first met Crutchfield around 2006. He started as her mentor and continued to give her “pearls” or tips once she became a dermatologist.
“He sort of helped me understand what the differences are between the practice that he had, which was a private practice, and my academic practice,” Farah said.
While Crutchfield was ill, Farah filled in as a cosmetic dermatologist at his practice in Eagan. That practice has seen countless residents who are interested in the field, an opportunity that Crutchfield created.
“He just had so much energy and positivity,” Farah said. “He was innovative. He was excited. He loved his community, and he wanted to contribute to his community.”
Abdulkarim and many other students shadowed him at his private practice.
“You could tell that every patient he came into the room with, they knew him,” Abdulkarim said. “Even though he was seeing 80-plus patients a day, he knew the context of the life that he was treating just by being their dermatologist.”
Abdulkarim also believes Crutchfield had a great impact as a Black doctor because his approach to many skin conditions was different from the field as a whole.
“It made me happy for the patients that can see themselves in him and not feel like they have to explain or be an advocate for the differences that need to be paid attention to, while also not being singled out as a case study or a special exception,” the medical student said. “You could see that in the patients he was treating. They felt understood.”
Crutchfield passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he had been battling for around two and a half years, according to his obituary.
Farah and Abdulkarim think continuing the work the revered doctor started – teaching the differences between skin types and how to care for all – is essential.
“The biggest issues with dermatology are that the skin disease can look different in different skin types. Getting that exposure on what different skin diseases can look like in our different skin types is really important,” Farah said.
“If you’re not aware of the differences or if you just accept a couple of pictures that you had seen, that is systematic misdiagnosis that’s going to happen,” Abdulkarim said. “I hope that he was enough of a leader and an influencer of others to keep this on the radar to be sought out to be further researched and embedded in clinical training.”
To her, Crutchfield was an “artist of medicine.” She hopes to be that too one day.
“He very much approached it as an art to give his patients the most attention and payoff,” Abdulkarim said. “Whatever I go into, I want to have a practice like his.”