Introducing: Surgeon General David Satcher

Ebony, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Introducing: Surgeon General David Satcher


They thought he was going to die. But the frail, 2-year-old boy on an isolated farm outside Anniston, Ala., was tougher than they thought. With the help of a dedicated Black doctor, he overcame whooping cough and pneumonia to live his dream of becoming a physician, like the doctor who saved his life. But his practice, unlike the practice of his hometown savior, has stretched across the entire United States.

"I think it was out of that experience that I got interested in health and medicine," says David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., America's first Black male surgeon general who grew up in a family of nine siblings, two of whom died very early, and who beat medical and racial odds. "There was a Black physician in Anniston, at the time, Dr. Jackson, and he was the one my dad got to come out to the farm. I think it was on his off day that he came there and virtually spent his entire day. I remember the illness. And people around never let me forget."

Hand-picked by President Clinton, Dr. Satcher, who holds the rank of four-star admiral, is the country's 16th surgeon general and the first Black male Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His landmark post makes him, in effect, America's family doctor, and each year he logs in thousands of miles, taking the message of healthful living to standing-room-only crowds nationwide. His commitment is to ensure proper health care, prevention programs and treatment for all Americans. But it is with minorities and African-Americans especially that Dr. Satcher is particularly concerned as he probes the problems of infant mortality, immunization, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer--ailments that exact heavy tolls on the Black community. This sensitivity to meeting the medical needs of all people, with a focused concern on underserved communities, is characteristic of his life.

In his former role as director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and as administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Dr. Satcher and his team labored to change the face of the agency and improve health operations throughout the country. He appointed six new CDC director's dining his tenure, two women and the first minority ever. On his watch, immunization increased nationwide from about 55 percent to almost 80 percent for all children, but particularly among African-Americans and other minorities in urban and rural areas. During the same period, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program spread from 18 states to all 50 states, and included five territories and 15 American Indian tribes and related organizations.

If his work at the CDC is any indication, America has nothing to worry about. The good doctor is definitely in the house. The surgeon general has made a smooth transition from living in a city where the CDC was a major federal agency to the heart of Capitol Hill, where he deals with three powerful government forces on a day-to-day basis --the White House, Congress and the secretary of Health and Human Services.

"You have to think about [Congress and the White House] every minute," says Dr. Satcher, who has been in Washington for less than a year. "You have to say, `How would this look if it showed up on the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow?' But having said that, this is an exciting town. And it's obvious that you can really make a difference here."

And that's exactly what he plans to do. He sets an example every day before he even arrives at the office when he jogs at least three miles to stay in shape and think more clearly. When he arrives at the Department of Health and Human Services, he becomes immersed in his mission of making sure that every child has a healthy start in life, promoting healthy lifestyles by avoiding tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, and a new initiative to show more support to families who have to deal with mental health problems. …

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