I have had the privilege to be the doctor for a magnificent collection of women of all races, age-groups, socio-economic status and professions. Seeing the trailer for “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” triggered thoughts of some of these women. I think it was the character of the wife, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey. So, I wanted to start with the elderly African-American females who paraded in and out of my office like characters from a fading Jonathan Green painting. Each still elegant though they were well into their 80’s, 90’s and even over 100. They came in dressed in hats, gloves, stockings and carrying old purses as if they were off to church. A close look at these garments would show the fraying material or stains that come with age. The fading of the once brilliant colors of these garments did not diminish their elegance.
These matriarchs were respected in the community as dedicated church members, retired teachers and sorority members (including my own). Some had just worked in restaurants as cooks or been housewives. They were often widows or unmarried. The widows had lost their husbands before I took over their care. They were living proof of the shorter lifespan of the African-American male. They all had been my colleagues’ patients but they gravitated to me.
When I told them I had graduated from Meharry Medical College, they beamed with pride. They too were graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities or had sent their children off to attend one of them. Many were known as Teacher’s Colleges when they were attending them. We shared stories because I had grown up in Birmingham and they had lived through the racial tension in their tiny community. Most of them had children who had gone off to college and successful careers in cities from the West Coast to the East Coast and everywhere in between. When I had a problem or if they were concerned, I spoke with doctors, lawyers, college professors, business leaders and teachers. Each one concerned about a parent, grandparent or an aunt. Each frustrated at the refusal to leave the community and move closer to them. When one of these ladies had an illness, they packed up and flew in to be by their side. The reality was that they had a circle of friends and a social network; they were not willing to leave.
Each came to the office with a brown bag filled with bottles of pills from the medicine cabinet. That was my request. I reviewed them and they were shocked when I tossed out outdated bottles and made a new list. I think they thought I was being wasteful when I tossed out pills but it was the safer option. I had a group of three retired teachers who always came together. The older one of the three was the driver. One of the ladies experienced several episodes of blood in her urine. I had to do a vaginal examination first not easily accomplished but was necessary. We thankfully diagnosed a benign tumor on her kidney. She sailed through the entire ordeal. The other two cared for her and made sure she made every appointment. They were amazing.
One lovely woman came in for an examination. I found a small mass in her breast. It was a localized tumor. She had no problems during surgery and recovery. The surgeon was amazed because she had no medical problems. She too had a strong network of friends and family. The nurses and all the staff in the hospital knew her and made sure she did well.
They were all addressed as “Miss.” It was just what was done. Being from the south it was easy for me to continue this gesture of respect. Miss B was known for her biscuits. She got up every morning and made the biscuits for a local restaurant. I admit I had succumbed to the sausage biscuit sandwich which featured her biscuit. It was a heavenly treat. She unfortunately had a stroke and could not work. It left her fortunately with a minor deficit. The owner decided to keep her own just to supervise the new biscuit maker. Thankfully, she had the opportunity to pass on that skill. She was proud of her skills and proud to share.
One of my favorites was a retired nurse. I removed several moles from her chest. She formed a small keloid but some quick thinking by us both prevented it from being a problem. She had worked in the local hospital but before had been in a larger city. She worked with residents and as she stated made them into good doctors. I always knew even then that good nurses made good doctors.
Miss C had two daughters who always took her to specialist because she always complained of being sick. They failed to see it was her way of getting them to come home to visit. I had to intervene after several hospitalizations for medication side effects. I called them and explained that she was just trying to get their attention. I spoke with the Cardiologist and the Gastroenterologist. I also required all medications to be approved by me before being taken. I did such a good job that she begged my staff to get her brother in. I was not taking new patients. One of them came to me with a smile and said I had to take him. When I asked “Why?” the answer left me nearly speechless. I quote” All he has to do is touch the hem of her garment and I know he will be healed. That woman was sent here by God to care for us.” A little embarrassed I said “Then I have to see him.” They all laughed and so did I. Unfortunately, I did not heal him but he did have good care.
Miss LR was over 100. She always came in smiling and dressed for church. She did make it past 102. She developed an anemia after all those years that required blood transfusions but they caused Congestive Heart Failure. The Hematologist just smiled and said he thought her bone marrow just “pooped out.” A medical term for; “I do not know why but we better not try too hard to find out or we could really kill her.” She eventually had to go to the local nursing home but she was cared for with love. Everyone who worked there knew her and care for her with respect. She was showered with hugs every day. I think she made it to 103. It was a great day when her funeral was held.
Miss M was another dear patient. She was blind from glaucoma. She lost her beloved husband and never recovered. They were a cute little couple. She would call the answering service saying she woke up and couldn’t see. These were panic attacks. I would take her calls and calm her down. One hot summer, we gave her an air conditioner. We made her use it and had her utility bills taken care of. There were funds for that back then. She would die in the hospital. She just stopped eating. I even had a feeding tube placed and that was a decision I later regretted.
The church and community played an important role in their lives and their longevity. However, for each there was one illness that would lead to decline despite flu shots, pneumonia shots and careful monitoring of blood work and medications. They each touched my life and shaped my medical career. I was honored that they allowed me to be their doctor.