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Meet Rudene Mercer Haynes

Aug 08, 2022

Rudene with interns Rudene Mercer Haynes (center), VCU Massey Cancer Center Advisory Board member and cancer survivor with the inaugural interns from the 2022 Clinical Trials Office Summer Internship (CTOSI). (From left to right) Rebecca Gunnin, Sera Lim, Pamela Adede and Madisonne Jennings. The new internship program is named to honor Haynes for her work combating cancer health disparities through Facts & Faith Fridays and other programs at Massey.

For VCU Massey Cancer Center Advisory Board member, Rudene Mercer Haynes, challenge is a part of life. It’s how you step up and face a challenge that makes all the difference.

This month, Massey sat down with the attorney, mom and community advocate to talk with her about her life and family, her work and passions (including where she’s most excited to travel next and why math is cool) and her commitment to giving back. Plus, she shares her own personal battle with cancer and why she’s so excited to be part of a new program to help train the next generation of individuals to promote cancer health equity for all people, regardless of race or locality.

 

Rudene Mercer Haynes is not afraid of challenge.

The self-proclaimed overachiever is a practicing attorney, mother of two, wife of a local pastor and VCU Massey Cancer Center advocate and Advisory Board member. Haynes is committed not only to advancing Massey’s mission to treat and fight cancer, but also to combating health disparities by raising awareness about the importance of cancer screenings and prevention.

Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Haynes credits her mother with inspiring her both to pursue her dreams and to give back. “My mother was incredibly street savvy, strong-willed and very passionate,” said Haynes, who spent her younger years trying to keep up with an older brother who was 13 years her senior and “a math whiz,” to whom she always looked up. 

From them she learned that whatever challenge would come her way, she would face it head on.

The past two years have brought challenges – to the nation and to her life.

In 2020, as the nation faced a pandemic, Haynes saw a related challenge emerging – one that disproportionately impacted African Americanmembers of the community who distrusted the medical community, generally, and the COVID-19 vaccine, specifically. Then, eighteen months ago, Haynes was confronted with another personal challenge: a diagnosis with breast cancer. 

Haynes’ response to both challenges was to take action.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr

The quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” has inspired Haynes throughout her life, she says. Her earliest example was her  mother, who valued altruism above all else. She held leadership roles at church and, despite limited resources, always made time to help neighbors in her community. Haynes’ mother divorced when Haynes was 2 years old and raised Haynes and her brother, Joel, as a single mom. She attended vocational school to learn a trade that would enable her to support her family. 

“My mother worked for 25 years for the government as a computer operator,” Haynes said. “It was pretty unique for a woman, and especially a Black woman, to work in computers back then.”

She also valued education and worked hard to ensure that her children would get the best education possible.  One of the best high schools in Jacksonville prepared Haynes for college, and she was accepted into every school she applied to, including Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Duke and the University of Virginia.

She chose to attend UVA, partially because they offered her the best financial package, but also because she could so clearly recall an eighth-grade class trip to Virginia, when she and her American History classmates visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Williamsburg and the University of Virginia. That trip was the first time Haynes saw snow, and she thinks that’s when she set her sights on being a Cavalier.

“When I saw UVA, with its iconic emblem on the lawn, with all the history … And then when I first saw snow, I was enamored with Virginia. I said ‘I'm going to go to UVA.’” She studied math in college. “My brother was a ‘math person,’ and so I became a ‘math person’ too, because I looked up to him so much –  and because math is cool.”

Haynes graduated in three years, thanks to a scholarship and work study, “without a single dime of student loans, which was a blessing.” She went on to study law at the University of Texas at Austin (now referred to as Texas Law) and then returned to Virginia to practice with Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLC (formerly Hunton & Williams) in Richmond, where she has been for 23 years. “That makes me ‘a lifer’,” Haynes says. “Hunton really set the bar for me in terms of what big law should look like.”

Rudene and mom Rudene Mercer Haynes (right) with her brother and mother. “Where I am and what I have become is due to my mother,” Haynes says.

An Altruistic Spirit and Facts & Faith Fridays

As an attorney and a firmwide hiring partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, Haynes’ work focuses on diversity and inclusion, a topic that carries over to her work with Massey, where she joined Massey’s Advisory Board in 2020.

“Despite not having a lot of money, my mother always had a benevolent spirit.” Haynes. recalls, as a young child, walking through the neighborhood to ask neighbors to donate to the American Cancer Society.  “That rubbed off on me, especially as I moved into my adult years.”

Haynes has always been active in the community, serving on nonprofit boards like the Children’s Museum of Richmond and the YWCA. But, the ability to address inequities and social justice issues at Massey is particularly meaningful, she says. The pandemic opened an opportunity for her to tackle the harsh reality of the disparate impact that COVID-19 was having on communities of color.

Familiar with the black faith community because of the work of her husband Rev. Ricardo Haynes, Haynes teamed up with VCU Massey Cancer Center director, Robert A. Winn, M.D., and Pastor F. Todd Gray of Fifth Street Baptist Church. In 2020, they worked with faith leaders across the region to create Facts & Faith Fridays, a series of video calls designed to spread accurate and timely information to combat mistrust among many in the African American community. Running almost weekly from April 2020 through December 2021, the now monthly program engages members of urban and rural communities across Virginia in ongoing dialogues. Topics range from the spread and transmission of COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine, to systemic racism and health inequity as well as cancer risks and prevention among traditionally underserved populations in urban and rural communities.

"Facts & Faith Fridays is special because it is really, positively impacting people,” Haynes said. “This program is saving lives just by sharing accurate information.”

Haynes’ law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth has co-sponsored health disparities webinars inspired by the Facts & Faith calls. Those sessions – focused on systemic disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes among minority populations, specifically in breast and colorectal cancers – have led to conversations  about other areas, including cancer screenings and preventive strategies for cancer.

Training tomorrow’s leaders

This summer, Massey launched a new internship program that recognizes Haynes’ leadership, advocacy and commitment to promoting health equity.

The Rudene Mercer Haynes Clinical Trials Office Summer Internship (CTOSI) program supports rising VCU third-years, fourth-years, or prospective 2022 baccalaureate graduates who have an interest in learning about career pathways in clinical research and the clinical research industry.

“Rudene is a tireless advocate for all things Massey – and, equally important, a great human being.” – Tremayne D. Robertson, Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, VCU Massey Cancer Center

Rudene Mercer Hayes

“Rudene is a tireless advocate for all things Massey and, equally important, a great human being,” said Tremayne D. Robertson, M.Ed., M.S., C.A.S., director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at VCU Massey Cancer Center, whose office is managing the program. “She is the perfect namesake for the Clinical Trials Office Summer Internship. These students couldn't have asked for a better role model. We work to continue to honor Rudene and make her proud.”

The program’s inaugural four interns – Rebecca Gunnin, Sera Lim, Pamela Adede and Madisonne Jennings – started the program this July. They were competitively selected to receive a stipend to work with Massey over a six-week period during the summer to develop an appreciation for the role of academic medicine and the impact of research on cancer disparities.

"[It is] one of the best experiences I've had as an undergrad,” Gunnin says. “The Rudene Mercer Haynes CTOSI is great exposure to an aspect of patient care you couldn't see anywhere else. I've already gained valuable perspective that I'll carry with me throughout my career. Thank you to the CTO team for offering this opportunity!!"

"The opportunity to learn and engage with passionate individuals like Rudene Mercer Haynes has enabled me to build my knowledge, improve my interpersonal skills, and expand my personal network, and also to partake in meaningful, patient-centered clinical trial activities," added Lim.

Haynes is “humbled by this honor,” and appreciates the thought that was put behind it. “This is something that is consistent with my spirit in the sense that it exposes a group of young people to something they may not otherwise have exposure to and gives them an opportunity to earn money and establish a network in the process. It’s a win-win.

“These young people are going to try to help figure out and understand what health disparities are about – what we can do to address them and where we could be going in terms of clinical research,” Haynes said, adding, “It’s a treat that I get a chance to actually meet these interns. That makes this really so, so special.”

Dr. WInn with interns Massey’s inaugural four CTOSI interns (at right) with Massey Cancer Center Director, Robert A. Winn, M.D. (center, back) and other Massey interns this summer.
“The world is big and small all at the same time.” - Rudene Mercer Haynes

In addition to raising a self-confident and altruistic daughter, Haynes says her mother empowered her to believe that anything is possible. “I realized early on that I wanted to see things outside of Jacksonville. I always knew I wanted more.”

Travel became a way for Haynes to broaden her horizons and to explore other cultures. “The world is big and small all at the same time,” Haynes says. It’s something she strives to instill in her own children. “I love exploring different cultures, and I love to do that through travel and through food.”

In recent years, Haynes has focused on traveling with her children and her husband (who hails from Jamaica, which they have visited countless times) to big cities within the U.S. – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago. Haynes her two children, a 9-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son (“who keep me on my toes,” she says) recently traveled to Los Angeles, and her entire family spent spring break in Miami and plan to be in New Orleans for Christmas.

“I like the culture and restaurant scene in cities. I didn’t grow up traveling to other cities outside of Florida, so I want my kids to have these experiences and to see all the different possibilities of where they could live.  It will help give them a kind of perspective, so they can make informed decisions about their own futures.”

Even at home in Richmond, Haynes attends festivals to learn about other food and cultures. “I go to all the festivals …. the Richmond Folk Festival, the Lebanese festival and the Greek festival and others in Richmond … to learn about other people and other cultures.”

Haynes’ next big family trip is to Japan. It was a trip they’d planned before the pandemic, so it’s one they’ve been looking forward to for a long time. “I am so excited, because it is all about experiencing other cultures. I love culture. I love sushi. So, to actually get a chance to go to a place like Japan to experience it in person is amazing. It’s going to be amazing.”

Rudene with kids Haynes and her family on recent trips to the Outer Banks and Los Angeles. Haynes values travel as a way to expand her children’s horizons and explore other cultures.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Haynes is proud of co-founding Facts & Faith Fridays and of being honored with the CTOSI internship. But she is even prouder to be a cancer survivor. Haynes was diagnosed with breast cancer and embarked on her own cancer journey in 2020.

“I used to say to my kids all the time, ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ It was my ‘mom thing.’ That was before I was diagnosed with cancer.”  Yet, despite questioning “the why of cancer,” Haynes still believes this quote holds true. “Cancer changed my perspective on life. It changed how I treat people, how I prioritize things, and what I do to be kind and to encourage others. I feel like I have more of a purpose now, that I am a better person, than before I was diagnosed with cancer. I believe that in my heart.”

It’s a lesson she’s continuing to teach her children – and is a challenge she is proud to be facing through her work to fight cancer and to promote health equity at Massey.

“I am proud of the live-saving and the life-changing work being done every day by the brilliant clinicians and researchers at Massey. I am proud to be spreading information to make a difference and to be supporting our next generation of practitioners. I am proud to be a survivor.”

If anyone is up to the challenge of making a future without cancer possible, it’s Rudene Mercer Haynes.

Written by: Katherine A. Layton

Interested in learning more about the VCU Massey Cancer Center Advisory Board and how you can join Rudene Mercer Haynes to help make a future without cancer possible?

Find out ways that you can support Massey | Give to Massey | Learn more about Massey’s Facts & Faith Fridays and the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion | Contact the Massey development office

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