Doctor: Don’t Touch

The number one rule for a male doctor who examines a woman in a burqa is, “Stand back and don’t touch.”    

This is more than a slight impediment to doctoring.

A Middle Eastern father brought his teenage daughter to see me. She wore the traditional clothing of her religiously conservative culture. After gathering as much information as I could through conversation, I knew I had to listen to her heart. I find this challenging from across the room. Thankfully the girl’s father gave me permission to approach her with my stethoscope, and the girl started to adjust her burqa to allow me to use it. Removing the first layer revealed another thickness of black underneath. The folds parted again to expose a further swathe of dark cloth. Finally she shifted most of the formless yardage out of the way, and I saw that next to her skin she wore a tee shirt like any American teenager.

Kiss me, I’m Irish, it said.

Over the years, I’ve come to see the Church Health Center, where I practice family medicine, as the United Nations of Memphis. The working uninsured come to our open arms, whether U.S. citizens who move to Memphis for various reasons, lifelong Tennessee natives, or immigrants from around the globe. They may find work in our city, but they don’t have health insurance. The Church Health Center offers care, and where they come from is irrelevant. They come in need.

When I first came to Memphis in 1986, I was determined to begin a health care ministry for the working poor. A lightbulb did not suddenly go on. I dreamed of this for years as I slugged my way—sometimes impatiently—through the training that would make it possible. When the time came, I chose Memphis because historically it is one of the poorest major cities in the United States. I instigated relationships with St. John’s United Methodist Church and Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, found an old house to rehab, and rolled up my sleeves. The next year, the doors of the Church Health Center opened with one doctor—me—and one nurse. We saw twelve patients the first day.

Today 55,000 people depend on us for their health care, and our Wellness facility welcomes 120,000 visits a year. A staff of 220 people shares our ministry of healing and wellness. Hundreds more volunteer time and services. A network of medical specialists makes certain the uninsured working poor receive the same quality of health care as anyone with a Cadillac insurance plan. Fees slide on a scale based on income and family size.

So what sets us apart from other community clinics around the country?

The Church Health Center is fundamentally about the church. We care for our patients without relying on government funds because God calls the church to healing work. Jesus’ life was about healing the whole person—body and spirit—and the church is Jesus in the world. Jesus’ message is our message. Jesus’ ministry is our ministry. Local congregations embrace this calling and help make our work possible. We raise about $13 million a year, but the value of the health care we deliver is $100 million annually. And for every dollar we spend on treatment, our goal is to spend a dollar on prevention.

The church can choose to get involved by reclaiming the biblical mandate to bring healing. Individual congregations can choose to get involved by envisioning their role in the health of members and the community around them. Individual Christians can choose to get involved in changing health care by taking charge of their own health care.  And it has nothing to do with what happens in Washington or who is president.

In the years that the Church Health Center has cared for people in Memphis, we’ve seen that two-thirds of our patients seek treatment for illness that healthier lifestyles can prevent or control. As the health care landscape changes, we know there will still be gaps in access to care, and the Church Health Center will continue to stand in the gap.

But we’ve also realized that if we want to make lasting difference in our patients’ lives, the most effective strategy is encouraging overall wellness in body and spirit. Some of our patients teach us profound lessons, and we carry them into our own lives and relationships.

We can put salve on what hurts at the moment, but what does that change? At a fundamental level, we must transform what the words well and health mean in the minds and hearts of most people. We’ve developed a Model for Healthy Living that communicates our heart for healing and wholeness in body and spirit. That’s what people need, and that’s what we want to help people discover.

Adapted from God, Health, and Happiness by G. Scott Morris (Barbour, 2012).

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