When Dr. Jaleema Speaks isn’t taking care of her own family, she’s helping others expand theirs by taking care of pregnant women and delivering their babies.
Speaks traces her initial interest in medicine to her grandmother in Antigua. In retrospect, it was those childhood trips to the West Indies that inspired Speaks to become a doctor.
“There were always pregnant women coming in and out of my grandmother’s house,” Speaks said of Leah, who taught Lamaze and yoga. “She had a brandy bottle on her back porch where she taught classes because it was a good shape or replica of a uterus. She used it for demonstration purposes. So, I think somewhere that inspired the concept of caring for women.”
Speaks grew up near New York City, spending many weekends with family in the Bronx. She was a teenager when her father’s job prompted a move to Winston-Salem. Speaks left North Carolina a few years later to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia but came back to attend medical school and complete her residency at Wake Forest University. She still lives in Winston-Salem and is raising two children, Joshua, 9, and Nahla, 8, with her husband Kelly.
She continues to see patients at Novant Health WomanCare in both Kernersville and Winston-Salem. She’s known as a trusted provider who “listens to understand, not to reply,” said clinic administrator Jennifer Greenly.
“She makes patients and team members feel as though they are the only people in the world who matter at that moment,” Greenly said. “She’s the epitome of a good human being. I joke that I want to be Dr. Speaks when I grow up – that smile, her warmth and her caring soul.”
In addition to seeing patients at the clinic, Speaks performs a variety of surgical procedures and delivers babies.
“I love those quiet moments when it's just a woman and her partner and they're there to welcome their child together,” Speaks said. “I also love that some cultures may have a very matriarchal kind of system where their moms and aunties and sisters and all this strong female energy are rooting on this woman.”
Speaks strives to engage with her patients and taps into her own roots to connect with them.
“I think as a black woman, there’s a lot of excitement about seeing likeness in people who do jobs that aren’t necessarily filled by women or even women of color,” she said. “I see lots of women and I think as a provider, you try to find a way to relate to them so that they almost see themselves in you or vice versa. There’s that level of comfort and it starts to blur lines of ethnicity or race when you have that moment with another person. It’s interesting.”
Food and culture permeate Speaks’ life, both personally and professionally. She connects with her family through cooking and loves rice and beans or “anything curry.” Another family favorite is Ina Garten’s Tuna Tartare recipe “for special occasions because the tuna can be pricey.” (Note: We recommend scaling down the portion size as the recipe is quite large.)
What people are eating also comes up when Speaks interacts with patients. In her experience “women are impacted more than men in this culture of deprivation and restriction.
“I think a lot of women come to me as a women’s health professional with this idea that something about their hormones or inherently being a woman is making it more difficult to be an ideal body weight or to lose weight. So, the conversation often jump-starts from a point of many women feeling frustrated about what the best recommendations are for their weight.”
In a diet-obsessed culture where consumers are always chasing the next trend, Speaks said science and medicine haven’t always had the best answers of what a healthy diet looks like.
“If we as a medical community just tell people they're eating wrong or eating bad or that this food is bad, I think it can be an affront to people's cultural, religious and familial traditions,” Speaks said. That’s why she regularly advises moderation and balance to patients when it comes to diet.
She also explains things in a way that allows her patients to trust her and be confident in her plan of care.
“Dr. Speaks treats her patients as people first and never a condition,” said Greenly.