Prescription for the Nation

By Lamb, Yanick Rice | The New Crisis, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Prescription for the Nation

Lamb, Yanick Rice, The New Crisis

Former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher is continuing his efforts to improve the public's health

On a tiny farm in Anniston, Ala., David Satcher lay near death from whooping cough and pneumonia. His parents, Wilmer and Anna, summoned Dr. Fred Jackson, who spent his day off trying to save the 2-year-old's life. As he left, Dr. Jackson warned the Satchers that they would probably end that week in 1943 without their son, but he told them what to do to increase his chances of survival. The couple, who had already lost two children because they lacked access to health care, followed Dr. Jackson's instructions and young David lived to hear his tale of triumph over and over again.

"By the time I was six," Dr. Satcher recalls, "I was telling everyone I wanted to be a doctor just like Dr. Jackson."

The late doctor would have been proud because his patient did all that and over again.

Today, Satcher is director of the National Center for Primary Care at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. The center collaborates with 146 community health centers throughout the Southeast to improve the quality of care in under-served areas. It has also received a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health as a National Center of Excellence in Research on Health Disparities - one of Satcher's passions.

"There are just tremendous opportunities to make a difference," he says of his new job.

Satcher was sworn in as U.S. surgeon general Feb. 13, 1998. Dubbed "America's family doctor" by President Clinton, Satcher took the moniker to heart during his four-year tenure and dedicated himself to listen intently to his nation of patients. As Dr. Jackson had done for him, he called on as many Americans as possible to assess their health and concerns.

But not everyone wanted to hear his diagnoses or heed his prescriptions - especially some elected officials. Still he pressed on, shining a much-needed spotlight on health disparities, obesity, mental health, sexual health, oral health, AIDS, suicide, youth violence, diabetes and needle exchange for drug addicts to curb the spread of disease.

Satcher has been hailed widely as one of the most effective surgeon generals. He had mastered the political dance as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used science to support his positions and drew upon his activist roots from his sit-in days as a Morehouse man back in the sixties. During his tenure as the nation's top doctor-- most spent concurrently as assistant secretary of health - he built coalitions with other agencies to stretch resources. He's credited with developing more initiatives and reports than any other surgeon general. His sexual health report led to a Ford Foundation grant to develop a National Advisory Council on Sexual Health at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

This is Satcher's third stint at Morehouse. He received his undergraduate degree there in 1963 and served as professor and chairman of the Department of Community Medicine and Family Practice from 1979 to 1982, just as the school of medicine was being spun off as a separate institution.

He then spent more than a decade as president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville before joining the CDC as director and serving as administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. His accomplishments there included increasing childhood immunization rates; raising AIDS awareness, prevention and funding; expanding the CDC's screening program for breast and cervical cancer from 18 states to all 50; and improving response to infectious diseases.

The 61-year-old physician practices what he preaches. He has led groups in fitness activities at conferences and other gatherings nationwide. Getting up close and personal with the public is something he's done throughout his career, from his days running a sickle-cell program and free clinic in the Watts section of Los Angeles, to his new role focusing on primary care. …

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