In the Spirit of Sankofa

Dr. Josephine Isabel-Jones and Dr. Brenda Armstrong paved the way for generations to continue the legacy these women began in an era that tried to hold them back. As Black History Month comes to a close, Dr. Annette Ansong introduces us to these pioneers in the field of Pediatric Cardiology.

In the Ghanaian language of Twi, the literal translation of sankofa is ‘to go back and get it’. It’s depicted by a plump bird whose body is facing forward but its head looking back.

For me, it is a reminder that no matter what great heights one reaches in life, to never forget whence you came. A gentle push that to whom much is given much is expected. This seems like a natural, self-fulfilling task when looking at my predecessors in Pediatric Cardiology. They are the likes of Dr. Josephine Isabel-Jones and Dr. Brenda Armstrong. These gentle giants were respectively, the first and second African-American women to be board-certified in Pediatric Cardiology in the United States. This was not an easy task in the era when they achieved these great feats. Their uncannily parallel lives are themed with boldness, selflessness, and the constant drive to serve.

Dr. Josephine Isabel-Jones with her UCLA fellows

These pillars of fortitude grew up in the deeply segregated South.  The racism and discrimination was blatant and unapologetic.  When enough was enough, these ladies showed true bravado in taking a stand against the injustices and inequities thrust upon them.  As a college student, Dr. Isabel-Jones was aghast at the fact that a book she needed for a writing project would take weeks to arrive at her local Blacks-only Memphis library. Meanwhile, the book was readily available at the Whites-only library in town. She did not have to think twice as a student leader at Lemoyne College in 1960 when faced with the decision of where to stage a sit-in! Needless to say, the Memphis libraries soon rid themselves of the discriminatory policies that prevented Black people from frequenting the Whites-only libraries. 

Dr. Brenda Armstrong with her Duke fellows

Dr. Brenda Armstrong was quite the activist during her college days at Duke University. As a founder and leader of Duke’s Afro-American Society, she was one of the leading organizers of the Allen building take over on Duke’s campus in 1969. The Black students at that time were fed up with their concerns not being addressed by Duke’s administration. They petitioned for the establishment of an Afro-American studies department, the need for a Black student union, and more financial support for Black students. Their diligence led to a more inclusive and supportive environment of Black students at the university. 

Drs. Isabel-Jones and Armstrong repurposed their activism while serving in prominent roles on the medical school admissions committee of their respective institutions.  They believed in a holistic approach when selecting students for medical school classes leading to more diverse student cohorts. Thus, creating a more inclusive physician workforce better able to care for an ever-changing patient population.


Their stalwart servanthood went beyond hospital walls. Dr. Isabel-Jones participated in international missions bringing pediatric cardiac care to those children in marginalized parts of the world that had no other options. However, she did not have to look far from her UCLA campus to find disparate communities needing her medical services as well, for which she provided.  Dr. Armstrong was a force in her Durham, NC community. She took great pride in serving as a track and field coach to the local Durham Striders. Known as “Coach Doc” to her young athletes, she not only taught the technical aspects of the sport but used the track to teach important life lessons that these young minds would carry with them throughout their lives. 

Drs. Isabel-Jones and Armstrong went on to receive multiple awards and accolades for their life’s work highlighted by the mentorship they provided. They exhibited the spirit of Sankofa by even though attaining great prominence in their field, always reaching back and helping others achieve their potential. 

I truly stand on the shoulder of giants. 

Annette K. Ansong, MD, FACC, is a pediatric cardiologist and the medical director of outpatient cardiology at Children’s National Hospital as of June 2021. Dr. Ansong is the proud daughter of immigrants from Ghana and was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia, followed by medical school at Howard University College of Medicine. She completed her Pediatrics residency and Pediatric Cardiology fellowship at Duke University Medical Center, while also obtaining a Master of Health Science in Clinical Research. It was during this time that she became involved with the NIH Pediatric Heart Network.  Between 2009 and April 2021, Dr. Ansong was in private practice in Virginia. Her work there led to recognition as a Northern Virginia and Washingtonian Top Doctor.

She is involved regionally and nationally on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. She also has an interest in global health and has performed mission work in Ghana and Haiti. Dr. Ansong currently co-chairs the Women and Children Committee of the Association of Black Cardiologists, Inc., and serves on the Adult Congenital & Pediatric Cardiology Leadership Council of the American College of Cardiology. Her career interests and passion have allowed for multiple publications, case reports and presentations.

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