CLINIC HEALS FORGOTTEN BLACK MEN BUT IT DOESN’T STOP WITH THE PHYSICAL ILLS
Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Mar 2, 2000; Kirsten Scharnberg, Tribune Staff Writer;
With funding from Cook County and the federal government, [Eric] Whitaker opened a clinic he named Project Brotherhood. While working his day job as a doctor in one of Cook County’s 30 regular health clinics, Whitaker initially lured poor black men to the Project Brotherhood offices every Thursday night with free haircuts, hot pizza and no- appointment-necessary doctor’s visits–often in that order.
(Copyright 2000 by the Chicago Tribune)
The doctor grew up in Woodlawn, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and a virtual public-health war zone. The statistics are harrowing there, amid the strung-out street junkies and the windowless building shells: Fourth worst tuberculosis infection rate of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. Seventh worst for HIV. Eleventh worst for full-blown AIDS. Thirteenth worst for gonorrhea.
“You look around and wonder where to start,” said Dr. Eric Whitaker, a jovial Cook County physician who always wears a stethoscope and jokes that the neighborhood he works in is turning his ebony hair completely gray at age 34. “Finding that starting point is almost mind-boggling as you look around this neighborhood.”
The hometown doctor who graduated from the University of Chicago and always planned to practice medicine in disadvantaged communities finally decided to start with the men of his neighborhood–men like him who had grown up poor and black and on the wrong side of the city.
“I looked around, and, in the midst of all this need, I decided that they needed me more than ever,” he said.
So in a nation where the overwhelming majority of social services focus on impoverished women and children, Whitaker came up with a novel concept that he hopes will eventually become a public health model for both the city and the state: a free health clinic for black men that aims not only to heal their street-worn bodies, but to minister to their broken spirits as well.
With funding from Cook County and the federal government, Whitaker opened a clinic he named Project Brotherhood. While working his day job as a doctor in one of Cook County’s 30 regular health clinics, Whitaker initially lured poor black men to the Project Brotherhood offices every Thursday night with free haircuts, hot pizza and no- appointment-necessary doctor’s visits–often in that order.
Now, just a little more than a year later, Whitaker has more patients than anyone ever predicted, has recently opened a second Project Brotherhood center at Cook County Hospital, and is finding that the men he serves are increasingly turning to him for much more than just physicals and prescriptions.
The county is heralding Project Brotherhood as a low-budget, innovative success story.The men who use Project Brotherhood are calling it their lifeline. Whitaker is simply calling his tiny clinic on Chicago’s South Side a decent start.
A community within
It’s just after 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday when clusters of men start arriving at the squat, brick clinic at 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave. The sign is simple: “Project Brotherhood: A black man’s clinic. Every Thursday. 4 to 7 p.m.”
Before the night is over, the doctors and social workers here will have helped dozens of men, with stomach problems and job problems, kid problems and wife problems. Any symptom that could walk through the door–from mental illnesses to broken families to advanced diabetes–does. There’s Alexander Shelton, 24, who is worried about the weight he has gained since another doctor put him on antidepressants. And 32-year-old Albert Washington, who is worried that he isn’t being the kind of father he should be. And David Dexter-Randles, who thinks he has seen a lot in 56 years of life and suspects he has some wisdom to share with the other guys.
Some of the men head immediately back to the exam rooms with a doctor. Others gather in a big, open room around a table and start talking about their week. A barber cuts hair, pizza gets ordered, men wander in and out.
“The structure here is unique,” says Jerry Watson, a Project Brotherhood social worker. “That’s deliberate. We let them determine the structure.” Watson explains that the entire organization of Project Brotherhood is dictated by the patients it serves. Before the clinic even opened, Cook County allocated Project Brotherhood funds to form 10 focus groups of black men. The men, many of whom were referred to the clinic after having been treated for gunshot wounds in the trauma ward of Cook County Hospital, were asked what services they wanted from a free clinic, and what would make them use a health clinic consistently: They wanted doctors who looked like them. They wanted social workers who looked like them. And they wanted a program that recognized the importance of spirituality on good health. Within weeks, Whitaker got a second African-American doctor to sign on to the project. Two African-American social workers, including Watson, agreed to help. And money came in from both local and federal grants to do a number of experimental services such as free HIV testing of black men on the streets surrounding the clinic and violence-prevention classes run by men who had been victims of violence. Right now Project Brotherhood is running its entire operation on less than $300,000 a year.
Whitaker even hired a young man who had attended one of the initial focus groups to do outreach work for Project Brotherhood. The young man, Marcus Murray, started in the Woodlawn neighborhood the only way he knew how: on street corners, at basketball courts, in church.
“When people on the street would ask me for change, I’d give them 50 cents and a Project Brotherhood flier,” he said.
A week before Thanksgiving in 1998, Project Brotherhood opened.
“Now we’ll just wait and see if they come,” Whitaker remembers thinking on that first night.
Years being lost
Even when Whitaker is sitting still, the young doctor seems to be in perpetual motion. “Here’s what I see when I look around,” he is saying between phone calls and his constantly buzzing beeper. “I see that between 1980 and 1990, black men lost life expectancy by 1.8 years. “I see that black men in this community are living about 52 years compared to white men, who are living about 67 years and women who are living into their 70s. “And I see that the disturbing trend is probably going to continue in our most recent census. Black men are basically the only demographic in our country who are consistently losing life expectancy like this.” “Providing health services for young black men is something that a lot of people talk about,” said Dr. Terry Conway, chief operating officer for the county’s ambulatory and community health network. “But to my knowledge, no one is really actually doing it very well. Certainly not to the extent that Project Brotherhood is. Whitaker runs his Project Brotherhood from one of the 30 county- run health centers in the system, none of which offers comparable services.
Healing the spirit
“Doc, I’m gettin’ BIG,” Whitaker’s patient, Alexander Shelton, says, alarmed. When Whitaker realizes that Shelton’s upper arms are so massive that the blood-pressure cuff won’t even fit around them, he playfully punches his patient in the shoulder and says, “You are one big brother. You got that right.” Shelton clearly appreciates Whitaker’s bedside manner. Not only has the young man found a doctor who looks like him, this doctor talks like him as well. “OK,” Whitaker says at the end of the exam, “let me give you this 24-hour number. You call this if something goes down or if you need to rap about something.”As Whitaker walks Shelton out of the exam room, another man, dressed in a cobalt blue three-piece suit and shiny black wingtips, snags the doctor. “Hey, Doc,” the man says as Whitaker hurries past. “Brought in a resume for y’all to take a look at.” While Whitaker spends most of his time in exam rooms with patients, Watson, the social worker, gathers the rest of the men– about 20 of them–around a table. “How was your week, brother?” Watson says, drawing a quiet man in the corner into the conversation. Albert Washington looks startled to be put on the spot, and he lowers his eyes before saying quietly, “I guess I should tell you that I have a 10-year-old daughter who I haven’t seen in almost 10 months, and it is really hurting me.” “Why aren’t you seeing her?” Watson fires back. “Not enough time,” comes the answer. “You work?” the social worker demands. “No.” The room grows quiet. The men just look at one another until a man in a red sweat shirt leans forward in his chair and says: “Listen to me, boy, I remember sitting on my porch waiting to see my daddy’s ’57 Chevy pull up, and it never did. Let me tell you– that’s a hell of a feeling for a little kid.” Carey Miller, 49, has made his point.[Illustration] PHOTOS 3; Caption: PHOTO (color): Dr. Eric Whitaker (right) talks with Alexander Shelton, 24, during an examination at the Project Brotherhood clinic in Woodlawn. Tribune photo by Candice C. Cusic. PHOTO (color): Troy Harden, social worker for Project Brotherhood, watches fellow social worker Jerry Watson (left) teach the official greeting to Andrew Burrell. PHOTO (color): Donald McGhee, 64, scans the help-wanted ads at Woodlawn’s Project Brotherhood, a free health clinic that stresses spiritual as well as physical well-being for black men. Tribune photos by Candice C. Cusic.
Sub Title: [CHICAGO SPORTS FINAL Edition] Start Page: 1.1
Subject Terms: Community action
Geographic Names: Chicago Illinois
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