Let’s Talk About the C Word

The C-Word postI have just returned from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

No, I did not meet Bernie or Hillary. In fact, my agenda had absolutely nothing to do with politics. (Thank God).

But I did have an agenda: to promote the idea that it’s time to rethink cancer.

I was in Philadelphia earlier this week to speak on a panel after a screening of a new documentary film called “The C Word“. The Church Health Center is featured prominently in the movie, which will be in theaters this fall and on Netflix in the spring. It is narrated by Morgan Freeman and produced and directed by the Academy Award-nominated director Meghan O’Hara.

You can watch the trailer here:

The movie is about how cancer can be prevented through improved eating habits, exercise, and stress reduction. Does that sound familiar? It should; the Church Health Center has been preaching prevention for nearly 30 years. The movie centers around a French physician, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, who developed brain cancer then aggressively began treating himself with the basics of good nutrition, exercise and stress reduction. He then wrote a popular book titled Anticancer: A New Way of Life. He doesn’t advocate a fad diet or his own special treatment plan.

The movie also uncovers ways our lifestyles contribute to the cancer epidemic in the US. But what’s disturbing is that even if we vigilantly do everything we can to avoid cancer, the deck is often stacked against us. Did you know that tobacco companies now own all the major food distributors in America? Or that when a food label uses the term “fragrance” as an ingredient, there is a list of carcinogens that can be included in that term? The movie reveals a great deal of similar information and is extremely thought-provoking.

A portion of the documentary includes several interviews with me, but I am proudest of the Jones family that the movie tracks over a year. Several members of the family lost significant weight by attending our Wellness center and working with our health coaches. They are the real stars of the film.

My hotel in Philadelphia was located downtown near Independence Hall. Staying there reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Franklin wrote that after returning to Philadelphia from Boston in 1735. Impressed with Boston’s fire prevention programs, he sent an anonymous letter to the Philadelphia Gazette with suggestions for how fire prevention could be enhanced in the city. It included avoiding “carrying live coals in a full shovel out of one room to another.” His commonsense suggestions led to licensing chimney sweeps and requiring homeowners to have leather buckets in which to carry coal.

Of course, common sense only seems so in hindsight. It takes an incredible amount of work to make real headway in the way we rethink health and then push for effective implementation of that new way of thinking.

Franklin’s suggestions about fire prevention have parallels in today’s healthcare landscape where we’re constantly talking about prevention of chronic health issues like cancer. It’s my hope that the lessons of The C Word will be heeded.


A “Cure” for Type 1 Diabetes is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Today, I treated someone who has type 1 diabetes mellitus. While it’s common for me to see people with diabetes multiple times a day, this consult was unique. Most diabetics I see weigh well over 200 pounds, but this gentleman weighed barely 130 pounds. Being diagnosed at age 14, he knew a great deal about diabetes.

Now in his mid-twenties, he takes insulin shots several times a day and knows how to check his blood sugar. He knows all the right foods to eat, but still his diabetes was poorly controlled because he is what is called a “brittle” diabetic. Brittle diabetics suffer from dramatic blood sugar spikes and drops, often without warning.

He is the perfect candidate for a new and promising research study that will allow the transplantation of insulin-producing cells into the bodies of type 1 diabetics just like him.

But did you know that less than 10% of all diabetics are type 1?

My patient today was in the minority of the diabetics I treat. Almost everyone I treat has type 2 diabetes, which is in many ways a completely different disease. Type 2 diabetes is determined more by lifestyle and eating habits than by insulin-producing cells.

FACT: Our bodies live off of sugar.

Everything we eat is chewed up and swallowed into our stomachs. Our intestines then turn all food, no matter where it came from, into sugar. That sugar goes into our bloodstream and travels to the cells of our organs. This is where the problem arises. The sugar needs to get into the cells but cannot do it on its own. It needs help, and that’s where insulin comes in. Insulin is produced by our bodies and floats around in our blood until it comes upon the sugar. It then grabs hold of the insulin and connects it to insulin receptors that are attached to the walls of the cells, sort of like a key to a door. Once connected, the sugar enters the cells and the sugar is converted to energy.

Make sense?

With type 1 diabetes, there is a problem with the insulin. With type 2 diabetes, problems arise because of a patient’s lifestyle.

The pills that are used to remedy type 2 diabetes work to make the body’s insulin more effective. These pills don’t work with type 1 patients because the person’s insulin is totally broken.

With type 2 diabetes, there is also the issue of the receptor being “sick”. Interestingly enough, it is often possible to improve the health of the receptors by doing those things that we should all be doing anyway, things like exercising and eating more fruits and vegetables. This is why we strongly encourage all type 2 diabetics to join our Wellness center and work with our dietician on ways to eat better and exercise more. As a Certified Medical Fitness Facility, Church Health Center Wellness is equipped to serve the needs of those struggling with chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.

I truly hope that the high tech “cure” for diabetes happens in the near future, but if it does it will only be for the small number of people who have type 1 diabetes.

For the lion’s share of people with diabetes and all the terrible consequences it can lead to, the best treatment is prevention.

A Lesson In Empathy from a St. Jude Family

“You’ve got to help me, Doc. My sinuses are killing me.”

The person speaking was a big, burly, and gruff man in his early forties. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d expect to go to the doctor for sinus trouble, much less be so insistent on me making him better. There was something about him that didn’t particularly agree with me, and the same was true of his wife who sat in the corner. She told me more than I wanted to know about her husband’s runny nose.

I then looked closer at the chart and realized I was talking to a St. Jude family. St. Jude’s is a research hospital in Memphis that treats children from all over the world with various forms of childhood cancer. This past weekend, runners from all over the world descended on Memphis to run in the annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon in support of the lifesaving work done at the hospital. My friend and colleague Antony Sheehan was one of them.

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony's completion medal

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony’s completion medal

Often, the children must stay in Memphis for up to two years while being treated, which means the parents are also in Memphis, sometimes unable to work either because they are from another country and do not have a work permit or because their child requires constant attention. In these cases, the Church Health Center takes care of the families of the sick child while they are in town. We don’t charge them for the visit.

I looked up from the clipboard. “So, why is your child at St. Jude?” I asked quietly.

There was a brief pause. Then the wife said, “He has a brain tumor and they just started chemotherapy again yesterday.”

“How long have you been in Memphis?”

“We came 10 months ago and he has been in the hospital almost the whole time.”

I wondered how hard that must be for anyone to endure. Granted, here at the Church Health Center we’re constantly confronted with the difficulties of life. We exist because the world is imperfect.

We’re here for traditionally-underserved patients like Bethany whose mental health struggles haven’t been properly addressed by their healthcare providers in the past. We’re here for patients who have no choice but to leave their native countries in search of a better life. We’re here for patients like Ollie who have been bruised and battered by the currents of life but still give at their own expense.

I’m used to seeing people in pain, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to watch my own child suffer. Listening and empathizing made me more forgiving of my patient’s harried attitude. The rest of their visit was much more congenial and in some unclear way, they no longer had to carry the weight of the world all by themselves.

I believe that we were all put on this Earth to help each other in some way. Sometimes, simply listening and realizing that everyone we encounter is dealing with pain beyond our own experience is enough to make this world a better place.

It is that empathy that makes us more Christ-like.

Conservation and Christianity Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

My brother in law, John, is a world-renowned nuclear physicist. He is the Chief Technical Officer and former CEO of TerraPower, a company owned by Bill Gates that is developing a safe, small nuclear reactor being built in China. It will supply power for 200,000 people without creating weapons-grade plutonium. Only the Chinese are interested in the technology because it is expensive to build and the US believes we have an abundance of energy in the form of natural gas and shale. While this is true, these are the exact fossil fuels that are leading to climate change and that have long-term adverse implications for the environment.

Will we ever learn? While I’m pleased that the Keystone XL oil pipeline won’t be built, we still have a long way to go until we take consistent, active steps to being good stewards of our planet. As Christians, we are called to care for God’s creation and treat it with sanctity.

John has never openly believed in God. He is, at best, an agnostic. He loves to discuss issues of the universe but has never seen the need to believe in God.

Recently, he and I were talking while overlooking San Francisco bay. We were discussing the short sightedness of the American energy policy when he began to wax poetically about the uniqueness of our planet, how Earth possesses every single thing needed to support life. He then described the number of planets in our galaxy and pointed out that even if there is a “Goldilocks planet” – a planet with the exact conditions needed to support life – out there, it is not remotely close to us and without changing the dynamics of physics we would never be able to reach it. He continued to speak about how special our planet is and how we must care for it at all cost because we can never replace it. The unique qualities could never be replaced.

So I asked him, “How do you think it came to be?”

Smiling wryly, he said, “I guess an old man with a white beard and a cocked head must have made it.”

He didn’t exactly come to claim he believed that we are here because we are creatures of God, but his smile made clear his willingness to consider the possibility. Pure chance does not seem a reasonable answer to the question of how we came to be.

I find it remarkable that one of the most religious countries in the world, America, is a leader in harming our truly irreplaceable Earth. We are unwilling to do what it takes to care for the planet despite the fact that in Genesis, it is one of the first things God commands us to do (Genesis 2:15). As Christians, we are mandated to be good stewards of this place that sustains us.

My agnostic, physicist brother sees it. Why can’t our God-fearing leaders?

On Loving Memphis

Last week, I was on a walk while on vacation near San Francisco. It was an extremely pleasant day. Nevertheless, one person after the other walked past me without saying a word. Everyone seemed preoccupied.

Finally, a man got out of a truck and greeted me.

“It’s another beautiful day!” he said. I agreed. Then he added, “It’s why we live here.” He seemed pleased with his statement.

I thought to myself, Really, you chose your home based on the weather?

Maybe that was just something to say to a stranger, but it got me thinking about why we chose to live in Memphis. I doubt it is because of the weather, and there are certainly other places that are more aesthetically beautiful. We don’t have mountains and we don’t have an ocean; we have a big, muddy river.

So why choose Memphis for our home?

Loving Memphis

To start with, I cannot imagine walking down the street here and not being spoken to, stranger or not. People here know that our greatest strength is our connection to each other. When I came to Memphis 30 years ago to start the Church Health Center, I was a stranger, relying completely on the goodwill of those around me to help establish our health ministry. Yet I was embraced and the Center has flourished.

I often say that Memphis has two things in great abundance: poverty and religion. Both, I think, shape the fabric of our city and why I for one chose to call Memphis home. While great poverty is not something to strive for, its presence here makes us all grateful for what we do have. I am privileged to have spent years with people who have little material wealth but who have used their spiritual capital to find peace and strength of character in a complex world.

When asked, “How are you?,” they answer without thinking:

Fine and blessed.

And they are.

As for religion, where else is one of the first questions you are asked, “Where do you go to church?”

Even if your answer is Temple Israel, “church” is just code for how you connect with something greater than yourself. I realize many among us believe they have a unique pathway to God, but I am so glad to live in a place where who I am is not just defined by what I have.

While many will quickly point out that the river, our four seasons, and fishing and hunting and our sports teams make Memphis a desirable home on many levels, I chose to live here because I have found love and a true sense of purpose in this big small town.

If you love Memphis, Memphis will love you.

Are you in New York City? I encourage you to connect with Choose901 this week to learn more about making Memphis home. Click here to learn more. 

The Long Road to True Collaboration

I recently spent two days in Houston at the US Health Forum for the United Methodist Church. The point of the meeting was to gather church leaders engaged in health ministry from across the country. Historically, the denomination has supported health programs internationally, but it has done little in America. The greatest effort has come from, of all places, the Board of Pensions which has focused on clergy health.

Over the last ten years, the Board has uncovered disturbing facts related to the health of those leading congregations. For example, in the midst of the obesity epidemic in America, United Methodist clergy are 20 percent heavier than the rest of the country.

This meeting was intended to outline the ministries the denomination is already involved in and offer a venue for sharing. Hospitals, seminaries, primary care clinics, and a wide variety of programs were represented, including the Church Health Center.

I met some fascinating people. Many of our faith community nurse leaders were there, and I had great conversations with them about ways to grow the effectiveness of our work. I was also excited about meeting and learning about work going on at Duke Divinity School. The large hospitals that carry the name “Methodist” were there: Houston, Columbus, Dallas, San Antonio, and of course Memphis. Various agencies of the church also presented their work.

What was sadly clear is that none of these groups are working together. While they all have small projects that overlap, most seemed unaware of what the others are doing. Unlike the Catholics, the UMC has no pope. No one entity is in charge.

I saw great potential for how various ministries could work together. One light bulb that went on in my head was how effective it would be if the Board of Global Ministries moved its health department to Memphis to be based at Crosstown Concourse. Why not put the small team working on health within the work we are doing, along with Methodist Healthcare? The young Nigerian doctor who leads the department is feisty, and I’m convinced her work would bear great fruit if she were with us in Memphis. But the wheels are already turning to move from New York to Atlanta, and it seems unlikely the plans will shift.

For now, the work will continue to be done church by church, through individual agencies, or through parachurch organizations like the Church Health Center. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t work together if we started the conversations that would lead us there. “Where do we go from here together?”

We did talk a lot about John Wesley and his book Primitive Physick, which I often mention. I learned that Wesley had no tolerance for clergy who were not willing to walk five or six miles every day. I also learned he had a wooden horse, an early version of a treadmill, that he would ride for two hours if he did not have a chance to ride outdoors during the day.

Wesley was committed to health and was strong in creating connections between congregations. I think the Methodists still have a great deal to learn from the leader we trace our heritage to. We can do better at working together.

At the same time, I suspect we are not so different from most Protestant denominations—or many cities with various groups working in their corners of the health world but not weaving the connections that would make the fabric stronger as a whole.

Maybe we all need to remember to raise our eyes beyond the horizon and look at something bigger than ourselves.

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.