A growing stack of reports on health-care disparities may explain why a patient with a toothache sat in the parking lot waiting to see a dentist the day that Golden Hill wiggled her brand-new key into the lock at The Community Free Clinic of Newport News Clinic in 2000.
The point is Hill was familiar with the growing stack of reports. So after she retired in 2010 as executive vice president at Riverside Regional Hospital, she launched the clinic. Whether it is a 2011 Columbia University report that shows African-Americans (even those with some dental insurance) receive poorer dental care than whites. Or a 2008 Northwestern University report that shows African-Americans are more likely to have an amputation than whites because of a lack of access to primary or specialty care. Or a University of Alabama at Birmingham study that shows African-Americans had 22,384 more strokes than whites in 2014. These reports not only explain why the theme for National Minority Health Month is “Bridging Health Equities across Communities.”
These reports also help to explain why traffic has steadily increased at the clinic Hill opened seven years ago in a low-income community in Newport News. “I always say opening this clinic was like throwing a pebble in a pond,” Hill said in a recent interview from her office.
“We are making a difference,” she said. “The first day we opened I saw our first patient sitting in the parking lot. We didn’t have a dentist so Dr. McKinley Price, our mayor, volunteered to come in along with Dr. Jasper Watts and several other local dentists.”
Hill continued, “We started with a staff of one doctor and two nurse practitioners. Our staff increased the second year to 7-10. Now we have 14 on staff (paid and volunteer). We have 135 volunteers. Moving forward, we have enrolled more than 3,000 patients and our visits have been as high as 15,000. We have been able to reduce suffering in this community because of a network we established with the health-care community. Before we opened, people traveled to the emergency room or the health department which is located about 20 minutes away.”
Reflecting on the early period, Hill laughed and described it, “I saw this vacant building on 25th Street. And I said, ‘I need that building. I am going to open a clinic.’ They donated that building to us. Riverside Hospital has been our biggest supporter. Then Dr. McKinley Price, our mayor who is also a dentist, called within a few months of opening our doors and said the city agreed to give the clinic a $50,000 grant. It was that quick. And people started to come.”
This means Hill has built her own bridge from a problem to a solution brick-by-brick by recruiting volunteers. The clinic is located at 727 25th St., in Newport News. Patients typically earn $12,000 or less a year.
“Let me tell you why this clinic is so important,” Hill said. “People here were going to the hospital for emergency care at a rate that was double that in the city and in the state – and dying at a rate that was more than double.”
Hill added, “They were going because of strokes, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure. Now that we are here they can walk in and see that their blood pressure is high. We are able to provide medical-care; medications from our on-site pharmacy, nutrition-support, and education that help our patients reduce their blood pressure levels. “We work hard to keep people out of the emergency room.”
The point is that an increasing number of reports highlight grim disparities in minority health-care; yet, Hill retired as a hospital administrator and took it a step farther. She built the clinic brick-by-brick by recruiting those who wanted to help. Specifically she began speaking in churches, talking to public officials, and asking educators and health care providers to become volunteers. The clinic has also participated in many health fairs and provided various types of screenings including oral screenings.
“Congressman Bobby Scott came over when we kicked off the dental clinic,” Hill said, listing some local links. “Dr. Price sponsors a golf tournament and uses the proceeds for the clinic as well as for the city of Newport News.”
Hill pointed to other critical connections including an on-site pharmacy that has received more than $1 million in donated medications. It has experienced a 57 percent increase in delivering prescriptions since 2013. Pharmacy schools at Hampton University and Virginia Commonwealth University also provide support.
Hill pointed to other vital links and connections. “The members of my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta come in to help. The Links have helped. We’ve had members of Omega Psi Phi help us at health fairs. We found that people just stepped up to help us. My seventh grade teacher even sent me a check to help and she also volunteered.
My church Carver Memorial Presbyterian has been a substantial and continual donor, as well as other churches including First Baptist Church of Denbigh.”
The bridge that Hill is building in Newport News does not rival the world’s greatest bridge, which was built in Kobe, Japan in 1998. The point is the world’s greatest bridge was built in Kobe after 168 people were killed in 1955 in two ferries that sank in a storm in the dangerous Akashi Strait in Japan.
This means human suffering disturbed people so much after the tragedy destroyed lives in Kobe that people wanted to act after 168 people suffered and died in two ferry accidents. People wanted to do something. In other words, widespread concern and raw gut feelings pushed Japanese officials to begin building the world’s tallest bridge in 1988. It took 10 years to finish the Akashi Strait Bridge. Today that bridge is 2.4 miles long, has six lanes, and four emergency lanes.
In a sense, a growing stack of largely dismal reports on minority health-care pushed Hill, a retired hospital administrator, to build a great bridge. Aiming to eliminate suffering, Hill bridged a low-income neighborhood in Newport News, to influential volunteers, concerned citizens, and assorted health-care services.
But other retired health care workers are also building bridges in Hampton Roads including Dr. Mack Bonner. Most recently Bonner was the keynote speaker at the recent Men’s Health Symposium in Portsmouth. Bonner relocated to Hampton Roads after he retired in August 2014 as the regional medical director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. During his medical career, which has included a medical residency at Harlem Hospital in New York, Bonner has seen the impact of suffering with his own two eyes.
“It was my experience at Harlem Hospital that brought me face-to-face with the ravages of sickness and death that befell us as a people, particularly Black men,” said Bonner who earned his medical degree at Temple University, completed his residency in internal medicine at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City, and soon became medical director of Harlem Hospital Center. He has held other positions including deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Health and later, medical director of the Maryland Department of Corrections.
“I was determined to devote the rest of my career and beyond to working with others to improve the health and lives of Black men and their families,” Bonner said in a recent email. “I have been called to serve the underserved, the poorly served and the never-served.”
Although Bonner is retired, he continues to build bridges in Hampton Roads. For example, he has helped to conduct screening in senior citizen centers, and in barber shops and beauty shops.
“I am on the leadership board of the local American Cancer Society,” he added. “Here the emphasis has been getting the message out to minority men and women about cervical, breast, colon and prostate cancer screening and prevention.”
Bonner is also the president of the local American Diabetes Association and chairs its community outreach committee. “In this role, I have been involved in community education, screening and referrals for diabetes care.”
Bonner is also a board member at the Hampton Roads Community Health Center, as well as a volunteer. “Every Friday, I go with HRCHC staff to the Food Bank in Norfolk to educate, screen and enroll persons in care,” he said. “I am on the Health Committee of Virginia Organizing. Here our efforts have been focused upon getting Medicaid expansion in Virginia.”
Pinpointing why he continues to help build bridges even though he is a retired medical doctor, Bonner said, “We build bridges because it is both morally right and politically right.”
By Rosaland Tyler