Making a Difference With a Simple Idea


Twenty-eight years ago, a nurse and I saw 12 patients at 1210 Peabody. Since then, the Church Health Center has grown to handle more than 42,000 patient visits at our clinic each year.

Last week, we celebrated a very special day at the Church Health Center. On September 1, our organization turned 28.

Twenty-eight years of providing healthcare to the working uninsured of Shelby County, Tennessee. Twenty-eight years of helping our neighbors live healthier lives. Twenty-eight years of filling the gaps in healthcare. Linda, a Center staffer in our 1210 building, brought in a nice spread of ice cream to help us celebrate.

But for me, the day was essentially pretty ordinary. I saw patients. I went to meetings. I tried to raise money to help sustain our ministry. This is just what I do.

The previous Saturday wasn’t so ordinary, though. I spoke at the TEDx Memphis event. Now, I am no stranger to public speaking. I run my mouth every day and have spoken to audiences much larger than the group assembled for TEDx. I’m a preacher, for Pete’s sake! But without a doubt, I have never been so nervous as I was when I rehearsed my talk and when I finally took the stage. It was like giving an 18-minute soliloquy in a play.

In order not to mess up, I had a few notes written on my hand. I didn’t need them, but it was a nice crutch.

talk to the hand

Gratefully, I wasn’t the only one who had anxiety over my TED experience. Even my friend Rob Carter, the CIO for FedEx, was nervous and talks to groups of 5,000 on a regular basis.

What I talked about was in some ways a summary of where the Center has been the last 28 years, but more importantly, where I hope we will be going for the next 28.

I realize I discuss our new home at Crosstown a lot – and of course, I was able to bring it up  in the Q&A session after my talk – but it is the ideas of the Church Health Center that make us who we are. In my TEDx talk, I emphasized a better way to care for people’s health based on the virtues of gentleness, kindness, compassion, humility, patience and love. In today’s healthcare landscape, it’s often difficult to see those virtues in action, but I’m convinced that they make life worth living and that the Center has found a way to care for people that embraces these virtues in all that we do.

I took a cool splash in the dunk tank at Rock for Love this year. It's a pretty refreshing way to raise funds for the Center!

I took a cool splash in the dunk tank at Rock for Love this year. It’s a pretty refreshing way to raise funds for the Center!

So while we didn’t have grand plans for a big Church Health Center birthday celebration – last weekend’s Rock for Love benefit was enough – we do have plans to build on what we have learned over the years we have been open. My TEDx talk tried to capture this. If you didn’t get to see it in person, it should be on the web sometime next week. I’ll be sure to post it on my Facebook page. (Click here to follow.)

But until then, remember that it’s the ideas that make the difference. Let your virtues – or the notes scribbled on the palm of your hand – be your guide.


You Can’t Take it With You

Don't you think I look pretty cool in a hardhat?

Don’t I look cool in a hardhat?

Every Thursday for the past few months, I’ve taken part in a hardhat tour of the new Crosstown Concourse building. The massive structure is being transformed in remarkable ways and will be the home of the Church Health Center in Spring 2017.

The sounds of jackhammers and machinery fill the tours. Crews have just begun installing 3,200 windows one-by-one. It is exciting to watch and thrilling to consider the Church Health Center’s future there.

While I am truly looking forward to the move, I will miss some things we will leave behind on our Peabody Campus that few others even know exist. Much of it is embedded in my memories, but there are concrete memories as well.

I mean literal concrete.

You Can't Take it With You

The week before the Church Health Center opened in 1987, the rehab crew poured the concrete for the driveway. Before it was set, the eight of us who were here and ready to greet our first patients went out and signed our names in a corner of the parking lot. Occasionally, I go and take a look at the spot. Remarkably three of us are still here: Robert Phillips, who works on our facilities staff, Kim Simmons, who helps with administrative duties, and me. It is hard to make out the names, but I can tell who signed where.

It's hard to make out the names, but they're there.

It’s hard to make out the names, but they’re there.

At the Church Health Center, we're all about repurposing things. Long before the old Sears Crosstown was reimagined as Crosstown Concourse, our old x-ray room was transformed into a break room!

At the Church Health Center, we’re all about repurposing things. Long before the old Sears Crosstown was reimagined as Crosstown Concourse, our old x-ray room was transformed into a break room!

Then there is the window in the break room at 1210 Peabody. I am sure many people have eaten in that room without realizing that it once was where we took x-rays. The window is there so that the x-ray tech could look in to see what was being shot. The drywall in the room is lined with lead. It will never fall down.

What is now the kitchen in 1210 used to be the lab. The cabinets were designed and built by a cabinetmaker in south Memphis. He had never made anything for a medical clinic, so they look a lot like cabinets you would find in your home. They have served us well.

I also will miss the carpet going up the stairs to my office. It is only there because Jean Campbell, my longtime friend and fundraising partner, used to trip on the steps on an almost daily basis. We had a big disagreement about putting runners on the steps: I thought carpet would detract from the beauty of the wood. She thought without the carpet, she would break her neck.

She won.

When Jean died, we bought a clock for the volunteer room from which so many donor letters have been mailed. The clock is to remind everyone that Jean expected people to receive a thank-you from us within 24 hours. My wife Mary and my friend and colleague Ann Langston, who has been at my side for so many years at the Church Health Center, picked out the clock. An ornamental piece, the clock doesn’t actually function at all. I have never understood why they bought a clock that doesn’t keep time. They just thought it had the look that Jean would have liked, and I am sure they are right.

Jean's clock is now accompanied by a Crosstown Concourse rendering. The past and the future are coupled together.

Jean’s clock is now accompanied by a Crosstown Concourse rendering, a reminder of how the past and the future are always coupled.

In the clinic, one of the rooms where I always see patients is designed with a Barney the Dinosaur theme. Most of our staff know that the Barney room is in memory of Scott Wallace. His mother was once a physician with us. During the time that she worked here, her three-year-old son, Scott, died of leukemia. He died on my birthday, and I had the privilege of conducting his funeral. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

To remember him, we decorated an exam room with a Barney theme because he loved Barney. I realize that SpongeBob and others have replaced Barney in the hearts and minds of today’s children, but that will not ever matter to me. While we will need to find fresh wall hangings, I can assure you that we will have a Barney room in the new space. As it happens, Scott’s mother, Febe Wallace, was in town and came for a visit just last week. When she went to visit the Barney room, there was not a dry eye to be found.

Church Health Center bus stop

Even bus stops are laden with history at the Church Health Center.

We will also not be taking the brick area out by the bus stop. One of our clinic assistants years ago came to me and said, “I have noticed people stand waiting for the bus in the mud. I don’t know anything about medicine yet, but I am good with my hands. Would it be okay if I built a brick pad for them to stand on?”

His name is John Huber, and he is now a well-respected dermatologist in Memphis. While he has volunteered to see many patients for us, I will always remember him for that brick waiting pad.

Next to that is Rob’s bench. Rob volunteered for us when he was a student at Rhodes. He and I used to play racquetball together. (I always won.) He went to medical school and was going to be a great doctor and come back to work with us. But his girlfriend died in a traffic accident, and he never got over the loss. A year to the date after she died, he took his own life. His mother and friends gave the bench in his memory.

We will find a way to take that bench with us.

McRae HouseLastly, we will not be able to take McRae House with us. Frank McRae was like a second father to me. He gave me the chance to find a home at St. John’s Methodist Church and be an associate minister there. Because he trusted me and my vision, he took his entire pastor’s discretionary fund to buy a dilapidated boarding house that would become our initial clinic. We named our building on the corner at 1216 Peabody after him. Initially, I made the plaque as small as possible as a joke to keep him from getting a big head, but a few years ago Ann had a new one made that is more appropriate. A little over a year ago Frank died, so he will not care that we leave the building with his name on it and move on. That is what has to happen to advance this ministry and any other, but I will miss just seeing it every day and thinking about Frank and what he meant to me, the Church Health Center, and Memphis.

You can never take with you all that has meant something in your life or the life of an organization. But I do hope we will not let these places and items be lost from the collective memory of the Church Health Center. They are important parts of who we are.

Welcome Antony Sheehan

The Church Health Center has a new president, Antony Sheehan. He moved his family all the way from Leicestershire, England, to join us in the broad array of work we do.

Antony and I met in the context of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement in Boston, an organization that has been helping us with our “Healthy Shelby” effort in our local county. Antony, who was in a fellowship at IHI because of his impressive career in healthcare systems in England, got so curious about our work that he came to visit the Church Health Center.

And fell in love.

Antony expected to return to England, but I really hoped he wouldn’t. He had every reason to go back to England—a thriving career where he has made a huge difference working at senior levels in the national health system. Grown children. A grandchild. It’s tough to compete with a grandchild. But I wanted Antony to come and help lead the Church Health Center. After his visit, I told him to go away for a week, and if he found himself thinking about nothing but the Church Health Center then he should call me.

He called. We got excited. We made plans. He went back to England to prepare for a permanent move to the United States. Then last Christmas U.S. Immigration denied his visa application to come to work at the Center. He and I were both devastated. After a very sad phone call with me, he went for a walk along the canals that run through his home city of Leicester. As he approached a canal boat, he saw it bore a logo he recognized. It was the logo of Sun Studio, the Memphis recording label that launched Elvis Presley. As he got closer he saw a decal that said “TCB,” short for Elvis’s slogan, “Taking Care of Business.” As he got closer still, Antony realized the name of the boat itself was Graceland.

You can’t make up stuff like this.

Eventually the visa questions were sorted out, and Antony is here with his wife and two youngest children. He began as president on October 1. I am not leaving the Church Health Center. I am the chief executive officer and Antony is the president. Someone said (and I am flattered), “It will be like Bear Bryant and Nick Saban coaching the same team.” I hope that is right.

Was it coincidence that the Graceland canal boat was in that spot at that moment? I have come to regard it as providence, reassurance for Antony—and all of us at the Church Health Center—that his future lay with us.

Antony and I will both tell you we sobbed that day last December, both when we got the news of his visa denial and again when he told me the story of the canal boat. While I am sure we are bound to have philosophical differences (you want me to believe that Bear Bryant and Nick Saban would agree on everything?), the bond we share because of the time of tribulation we experienced together will weather a long list of petty disagreements.

I’m glad to be starting the new year with Antony in the Church Health Center boat.