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 Proud Namesake: The Story of Dr. Menachem Leasy

Sometimes chosen family matters as much or more than the family we are born with. That is certainly true for my wife Mary and our “adopted” son, Menachem Leasy.

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Menachem was born in Tupelo, Mississippi during the time of the Camp David Accords. These were talks between the USA, Egypt, and Israel that lead to a brokered peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that has lasted for over 35 years. Menachem’s mother was so enamored with the possibility of peace in the Middle East that she decided to name her baby after one of the three national leaders. She was choosing between Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin. She chose Begin.

Menachem was a good student who has always worked hard. When he was 11 years old, he got his first job working on the back of a garbage truck. After his shift, he’d head to school.

He played football in high school and was good enough to go on to play fullback at Rhodes College here in Memphis. He wanted to be a doctor and made good enough grades to be accepted, but he just missed being admitted to the University of Tennessee, his first pick. So, he became a clinic assistant at the Church Health Center.

He worked for us 40 hours a week, but had a second job as well. It was on a Sunday afternoon when Mary and I ran into him at his third job that we decided to adopt him with the full blessing of his mother Dorothy.

I worked hard to help him get ready for medical school and to help him along the way once he was admitted. During his senior year, he and I took several trips for him to interview for his residency. I have always hoped that he would be a physician who would care for the poor and eventually come back to work at the Center.

At least the first part of my wish came true.

From the first time Menachem set foot in Manhattan, he fell in love with New York City. He began his residency to be a family physician at Beth Israel Hospital in lower Manhattan. As a Jewish hospital, many Hasidic Jews would pick their doctor from a list that only had the doctors’ names. Naturally they were surprised when their doctor named “Menachem” turned out to be something different than they expected: a young, African American man. Quickly, however, they realized they were in excellent hands.

When he finished his residency, I in no subtle ways began making plans for him to come to work alongside me. Sadly, for Memphis, Dorothy, and Mary and me, the New York bug was too powerful. For the last three years, Menachem has worked at a clinic in Harlem that provides care for the poor. He is everything I hoped he would be, only he is doing it Manhattan.

His mothers and I hope that one day he might again come back to Memphis, and he does not rule that out. For now, we are stuck with twice-a-year visits. Recently he came home to Memphis and I gave him the tour of Crosstown. I am hoping that seeing what is possible there has gotten his wheels turning.

No matter what I know, he is an excellent physician. It is evidenced by the fact that many of his Hasidic patients have followed him to Harlem even though they live on the lower east side, which in New York is a long way to travel to see your doctor.

While peace in the Middle East is still elusive for the world, I have to believe that all three world leaders would be pleased with knowing that a baby born in Mississippi at the time of their work has gone on to do the type of work based on justice that all three hoped for. I am especially sure that Menachem Begin would be proud of his namesake.

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris

Our Already-Great America

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has said a great deal about making America great again. I had a conversation with one of our clinic interpreters who showed me why America is great now.

Our Already-Great America

Image credit: “Unity Amidst Diversity” by eddypau

Ambar was born in Mexico. When she was a young child, her father came on a visa to work in Los Angeles. Because he was worried about issues of gang violence in LA, he moved his family to Memphis, where Ambar and her sister grew up. Four years ago Ambar married a young man from Mississippi.

From here on, this story gets complicated. You may need to pull out your atlas.

Ambar’s husband grew up in Mississippi, but his parents did not. His father is from Morocco and his grandmother is from Spain. Ambar’s husband’s mother is from Korea. His mother’s sister married an African-American US soldier who moved the whole family from Korea to Mississippi.

Ambar’s Mexican-born sister recently married an Indian man who grew up in England. At their wedding, there was a traditional Indian service, the bride was painted in henna, and there was also a Mariachi band.

So to recap: Mexican, Moroccan, Korean, Spanish, Indian, and British heritages all mingled together to make up your average family living in north Mississippi and Memphis.

No matter how you look at it, surely that is what makes America great.

Religiously, we have mixed Catholic, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh, Protestant Christian, and Buddhist.
I am guessing that makes God smile. I am not so naive as to think this family does not have cultural challenges. Questions about how to raise their children are certain to abound. But the richness of their lives from the amazing diversity is certain to bring a fullness to life that is not easy to come by.

America truly is a country of immigrants. I know that my life is made richer by my experience of other points of view both culturally and when it comes to how God is made known.

America does not need to be made great again. It already is.

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.

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. 

Walking the Walk: Why the Church Health Center Is Committed to Staff Health

Every day at the Church Health Center, we help people experience the life well-lived.

For some, that means receiving care at our clinic. For others, that means working with a personal trainer on our Sports Court to get the best out of their workout. For our youngest visitors, it means learning in Child Life how to establish healthy habits.

It is important that we not only tell people what they should do but show them that we are trying to do the same thing: live healthy lives. Our staff has many of the same health challenges as our patients. In order to help our staff along the way, a number of years ago we began a staff health program. Over the years we have worked hard to make it both enticing for our staff to participate and to present an effective program.

Of course, that is all easier said than done.

Walking the Walk

We have made a number of tweaks to the program and are still looking for the right process. We’re making strides because we have 84% of our employees currently participating. That compares to many companies that believe they are doing well if 25% participate in their staff health program.

Although living a healthy life is its own reward, the truth is that incentives help sweeten the pot. The Church Health Center’s staff health program includes incentives that strike the best balance of personal motivation, financial rewards, and coaches who can help show the way. I am a believer that you need all three. The program needs to be flexible enough for everyone’s needs.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

Our program works like this. People set goals for themselves at the beginning of the year. We use an electronic log that allows staff to record their exercise, their eating habits, and their spiritual care. Along the way, we measure their exercise capacity, their flexibility, and a number of blood components such as cholesterol and blood sugar. People earn points as they achieve their goals and log their activity.

Based on a 500 point scale, people earn either a hundred dollars or a day off from work for every hundred points they achieve.

It is so important for us to be able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I took this seriously myself a year or so ago and lost almost 25 pounds. Happily, I have been able to keep the weight off while also doing routine exercise. A number of our employees have far more impressive results than that. Major weight loss and lifestyle changes have been logged and continue to evolve.

Our goal is to make living a healthy life the norm for anyone who is a part of the Church Health Center. To do so requires daily devotion to the task. It cannot be a fad and it cannot be done for the rewards. At the end of the day, true results are motivated by the desire to nurture the bodies God has given us. This must be the overriding thought when you are having a bad day and the chocolate cake is sitting right in front of you or you just want to blow off taking a walk. None of us are immune to falling into the pit or what John Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress called “the slough of despair.”

It is why we also set out free fruit bowls around the Center for when people need a snack. We encourage everyone to take advantage of their free membership to the Wellness Center if they do not have an easy place to exercise. And our employee health staff is just a phone call away to help you recommit to your goals. It is not easy, but it is doable.

Every year, we look at our aggregate numbers to see how we are doing. All in all, we are making progress. I still have a goal of 100% participation but I am told that is not reasonable, although I am not sure why. I do, however, believe we can commit to offering to our staff the chance to adopt healthy behaviors whenever someone is ready to make the change. I strongly believe that this is one of the best ways to find our path toward God. It will never be that we always feel connected to God, but we can always be moving toward God. Sometimes that might mean we are just literally walking on the path when our minds are distracted but our bodies and our spirits are one and if either is aimed in the right direction, it is of God.

Top 10 Church Health Center Myths

After doing the work of the Church Health Center for almost 28 years, it is easy for me to come to work every day and think nothing has changed. After all, my office is in the same room it has always been, and in my head I am still 33 years old. (Please don’t laugh.)

There have, however, been enormous changes to our ministry in those past 28 years, and even more are on the horizon with the move to Crosstown Concourse well on the way. As a result, many people misunderstand the extent of the work we are doing. Here are the 10 most common misconceptions people have of the Church Health Center.

Top 10 Myths about the Church Health Center

1. We are a small clinic on the corner.

Actually, we are the largest privately-funded, faith-based clinic in the country, caring for over 70,000 working but uninsured patients. We help faith communities all over Memphis establish health ministries in their congregations. Our Wellness facility boasts an affordable gym and a demonstration kitchen where everyone in our community is welcome. We have a preschool because we believe that education is a health issue.

We are a clinic, but we are so much more. We’re moving the needle on health disparities and helping people live their healthiest, happiest lives.

2. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the Church Health Center is no longer needed.

There were 26 million uninsured Americans when we opened our doors in 1987. Fast forward to 2010 when the ACA began, and that number had risen to between 50-60 million plus the immigrant population. The ACA has helped 11 million people get health insurance, but that means there are millions more uninsured people now than when we began. The ACA has too many gaps to count, and the Church Health Center fills those gaps.

3. We only treat colds and minor illnesses.

Not even close. We care for the full gamut of healthcare needs because the uninsured get sick with the same things that the insured do. From broken bones to life-threatening cancer, our 1,000 physician volunteers allow us to achieve our goal of providing the same quality of care you would want your mother to receive. We offer dentistry and optometry. We offer counseling services and physical therapy. We’re here to care for your whole body, mind, and spirit.

4. We are just a doctor’s office.

In fact, our goal is that for every dollar we spend on treatment we spend a dollar on prevention. Our wellness programs are extensive, ranging from nutrition, to fitness, to spiritual care.

5. Our Wellness Center is just for our patients.

It is actually open to everyone in our community, uninsured and insured alike. There are no income requirements to become a member. Anyone can join and pay on a sliding scale according to their income.

FM berries6. Our Wellness Center is just a gym.

It is actually a Certified Medical Fitness Center. That means we have staff trained to help you return to your highest level of wellness after you have had a stroke, knee surgery, or heart attack. Church Health Center Wellness also houses Child Life, which is far more than daycare for your kids while you run on the treadmill. Church Health Center Child Life offers engaging staff and curricula that prepare our youngest members to be healthy for life.

Need more proof that Church Health Center Wellness is more than a gym? We host a farmers market during the summer. When was the last time you bought a locally-grown tomato at the chain gym up the street?

Have you received your copy of the Church Health Reader? Subscribe here!

Have you received your copy of the Church Health Reader? Subscribe here!

7. We are only touching lives in Memphis.

Actually, we are a national, even international organization. Our magazine Church Health Reader is read all over the world and we are the home of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, which has trained over 15,000 nurses worldwide to work in faith communities.

8. Health is only about what the doctor does.

That actually has very little with being healthy; 10%, to be precise. For that reason, we run a preschool called Perea. We have a wide array of health programs that have nothing to do with the doctor. We believe that change in healthcare starts with you. Healthcare we can live with starts with growing a new culture that features dignity, community, giving, and prevention.

9. We are a government-funded health clinic.

Nope. We keep our doors open because of the generosity of the wonderful people in our community, congregations, businesses, and foundations. We must raise almost $14 million a year to keep our doors open.

10. I am about to retire.

Sorry, that’s a myth too. I will retire only when I cannot physically come to work. Antony Sheehan has joined the Center as the President and is helping to lead us to our new home at Crosstown, but he and I are working side-by-side and will be doing that for years to come.

The most important point I am making is that the Church Health Center will and needs to exist in perpetuity. Jesus said that the poor will always be among us, so we will, too.

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