BY EDITH TORRES
Dr. Carol Penn is a tenacious and compassionate woman, who has many roles: physician, dancer, medical researcher, award-winning choreographer, motivational speaker, writer, yoga instructor. She grew up in Red Bank at a time when the vestiges of segregation lingered in our society. An only child of a ground-breaking mother, the first African American director of nursing at the Marlboro State Psychiatric Hospital, she was encouraged to experience all she yearned for. As most children placed in dance classes were white, Dr. Penn’s classes were private with her Russian teacher and her teacher’s African American assistant. Exposed to her mother’s enthusiasm for dancing and her mother’s high-profile, Dr. Penn knew what she wanted. Her 3-year old self told her to start with dancing before she got too old, and so she began.
Dr. Penn credits Red Bank Regional for the lessons of determination and leadership she received. Open to her were an abundance of extracurricular activities from language clubs to athletics to the theater plays. She participated in all this as well as amazing Advanced Placement classes to challenge her academically. She also had a wonderful life-altering experience in her senior year as an exchange student in Indonesia.
After Dr. Penn graduated RBR, she attended NYU and received a BS in Dance Education and MA in Humanities. She eventually joined the famous Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as a scholarship student and then was asked to join the original Alvin Ailey Workshop Ensemble under the direction of Kelvin Rotardier, and thereafter became a teaching fellow for The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. With Ailey she honed her skills as a performing artist, and with the Kennedy Center’s Very Special Arts program she traveled the world. She went on to form and direct her Pennvisions dance company and the New Visions Dance Theater in Washington, D.C.
Her accomplished life was not without turmoil, however, as she cites her separation from her son’s father as one of the most devastating times in her life. She states, “I had to reach down to deep, deep parts of me.” During her darkest times, she likes to tell herself, “Breathe, just breathe.” She used this one simple act to keep her strong.
All the doubt that pressured her dissipated as she made the decision to return to school and study medicine in hopes of becoming a physician. Accepted into Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, she completed her medical school training in 2006. She then went on to complete her residency training at St. Joseph’s North Philadelphia Hospital in Philadelphia, PA and is now a Board Certified physician in Family Medicine and Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment. She considers this new career direction one of her greatest accomplishments as she explains, “I want to show other people what is possible.”
In fact, one of Dr. Penn’s goals is to inspire the next generation that it’s “never too late” and that we can always ask ourselves “Why not?” With this new profession, Dr. Penn is on the Faculty at Rowan University and Faculty for the Center for Mind Body Medicine based in Washington, D.C. One thing she learned through her exploration of medicine was a love for surgery and the human body itself. She compares it to a beautiful, blood-pumping cathedral.
Her medical accomplishments and accolades are too numerous to list. To mention just a few: she is an Ambassador and Scholar by the National Health Service Corps from 2003 until the present; she was recognized by the Sickle Cell Parents’ Association of Children’s Hospital in PA in 2012; received the Lamaze International Board Award twice and was appointed to their Board. She found ways to educate the public as a health correspondent for a local radio station, 900AM WURD (that airs the fourth Tuesday of every month at noon) published in yoga journals, and even appeared on the TV show, Live with Regis and Kelly in 2001.
Dr. Penn’s varied and rich career includes the disciplines of meditation, yoga, writing, drawing, personal training and guided imagery. She employed these activities to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy where she led trauma relief sessions with the Center for Mind Body Medicine and worked with Unity By the Shore in Neptune. She also trained other professionals to help bring relief to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in CT. Additionally, she made a medical mission trip working with Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica.
Teaching lessons of coping and resilience are the core of what Dr. Penn strives for in her work. Her central message, or slogan, is “Self-care is the heart of healthcare.” This reinforces that what is most important is the purpose of one’s life. For herself, this includes being happy, loving, kind, and not settling for less in a relationship or marriage. She even states perseverance as one of her greatest qualities.
Dr. Penn’s life story returned to Red Bank where she lives with her husband Diem Jones and their sons Keita and Dima whenever they are fortunate enough to have their blended family together. She currently works as a Primary Care Physician with Ocean Health Initiatives in Lakewood, NJ and practices non-surgical Bariatric Medicine with Medimorphosis, Medical Weight Loss. Dance is still a major part of her life as she continues to choreograph for the local interfaith Core of Faith dance ensemble which she co-founded over ten years ago.
What students can take from Dr. Penn’s many stories, is as she says, “the biggest adventure a person, in my opinion, can go on is the inner adventure of getting to know yourself.” In other words, the person staring back at you in the mirror is the person who can help you the most.