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.

Advertisements

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.

On Paris

I was 17 years old when I first visited Paris on a high school choir trip. Before we left, I was told over and over that the Parisians did not like Americans. I was told to be prepared for them to be rude and mean.

That wasn’t my experience. In fact, it was just the opposite of what I experienced there.

Everywhere I went, Parisians went out of their way to help me. They were kind. They were warm. They were compassionate.

Sure, the city was beautiful and historically rich, but it wasn’t the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral that made me want to return to the city. It was the people who treated me as though I was one of them.

They were Paris.

It was not the tourist attractions that ISIS attacked: it was Parisians themselves. Folks eating dinner. Music-lovers taking in a concert. Fans attending a soccer match. ISIS wanted to instill fear, and that goal was accomplished.

Now, the retaliation has begun. New airstrikes. Blind anger at any Muslim. Fear of the unknown has replaced any attempt to embrace the other. None of it will make us safer.

Religious violence has been with us since the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. We seem to not know how to love God without killing each other. The terrorists cried, “God is great” as they killed the innocent. It is a cry we have come to expect. I just hope we are not prone to respond, “Our God is greater.”

Surely the God we worship can help us find a path to peace. Embracing those who are not like me gives me a chance to see the full richness of God.

I pray we will not retreat to “an eye for an eye.” We know already that will make the whole world blind.

The ACA Lives, but Healthcare Gaps Remain

Oblique_facade_3,_US_Supreme_Court

A couple weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. The vote was 6-3, which makes me think that even the conservative judges realized that eliminating the current way the Exchange works would create chaos for millions of people and our healthcare system in general.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision is good and wise. The truth, however, is that nothing has really changed. The flaws in the healthcare system are still there whether or not the Supreme Court gives it its stamp of approval. I know this firsthand because at the Church Health Center, more than 90% of our patients are ineligible for a subsidy from the Exchange.

Our patients – all of whom are employed – will continue coming to us when they are sick.

Many of our patients and countless others all over the United States continue to struggle in this post-ACA landscape. If they go to the ACA website and enter their income information, they will be referred to their state’s Medicaid program for help. But in Tennessee and every state in the South except Arkansas, the state legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid. That means that anyone whose income is below 138% of the poverty level receives no benefit from the ACA.

Yes, that is right: the poorest people get nothing.

If a single person makes less than $16,000 or a family of four makes less than $32,000, they receive no help with purchasing health insurance. They are on their own. Even those who are eligible for subsidies through the Exchange sometimes face difficult decisions. If a single mother works three jobs and has three children and makes $33,000, she will be able to buy a policy for $150 a month for herself, but that is $150 she might not have budgeted. The policy will have a $5,000 deductible. Not a day goes by that one of my female patients doesn’t ask me what I would do if I were in her position. I cannot honestly say that I would purchase the policy, but she knows that if she does not, she is breaking the law.

It is hard to believe, but these are the facts.

The gaps are real.

The system is broken.

People are dying.

It is clear that the Supreme Court did not solve our healthcare issues. Our system is not designed to provide affordable care to our most vulnerable populations, but I am confident that America can do better than that.

In the wake of Independence Day, surely we will remember that a great country is judged on how it treats those whom the Bible calls “the least among us.”

No Impediments

No Impediments

I walked into the exam room to a familiar scene. Two men sat before me looking worn and tired. Their interpreter stood alert, ready to help me give them the care they needed.

One was 18, the other in his mid-30s. The younger man was clean-shaven and well-dressed. He complained of a persistent cough and a sprained ankle.

I asked as I always do to immigrants, “How long have you been in the U.S.?”

“Two days.”

Through their interpreter, a longtime patient of mine, I learned that both men had entered the U.S. from Mexico through Laredo. The 18-year-old was forthcoming with answers to all my questions.

“How much did you have to pay the coyote to get you here?”

“$3100.”

At that point, the interpreter broke in. “He is my nephew. His mother saved up the money for him to come be with me because he cannot find work in Mexico. He’s worried about the cough because someone else on the crossing was very sick. He’s worried it might be TB.”

The other man was in pain too. “He is my brother,” the woman said. His lower leg was red, swollen and very tender, and I was worried he might have a compartment syndrome which would require surgery. I took an x-ray and luckily one of the retired orthopedists was there to examine him with me. He thought it was just a very bad bruise, but I still scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week.

While waiting for his x-ray, the patient began talking to Claudia, one of our other interpreters.

She told me, “There is more to his story than he told you.”

When it comes to these cases, there always is.

As he told me his story, tears began rolling down his cheeks. Married with four children, he had resorted to begging to pay his bills because he could not find work in Mexico. To pay the coyote to help him cross into the U.S. where he could most certainly find work, he made the decision to sell his car, the only thing of value he had. That got him $3100, but then the coyote demanded that he pay another $1000 for security. Obviously, he didn’t have it. The coyote threatened to leave him in the desert or turn him over to a drug cartel at the border. Miraculously, his sister found a way to wire him the money.

She said, “I had to do it. He is my brother.”

I assured him that I could help him with his leg. After all he had been through, I was glad to deliver him a sliver of good news. It would take some time for his leg to fully recover, but I knew he would be alright within a couple of weeks provided he stayed off his leg at work and rely on crutches to get around.

His face fell again.

“I cannot pay for the crutches.”

I assured him that we would give him the crutches.

As for not working, I knew there would be no way to stop him so I just tried to lay out some parameters so the problem wouldn’t worsen.

As they were leaving, everyone was smiling. I knew that both men would heal soon and that for a time they would find a bit of security knowing that as long as they worked, the Church Health Center would provide them with medical care.

Still, I just feel so sick to my stomach that this is what happens every day on the border of my own country, in order to come to my city, in order to become my patient. All this money and all this fear is put on the line just for the chance to have a better life.

A life where you can work freely and provide for your family.

A life where you do not have to beg to feed your children.

A life where you do not have to pay a bribe to a drug cartel in order to work honestly.

A life where you are willing to work hard and are not breaking a law when you step into the Rio Grande River.

It was in the Jordan River that Jesus felt God’s presence. On this issue of caring for immigrants is the one place where I’m clear as to God’s will for me.

Each month at the Church Health Center, we hold an All-Staff Meeting. New employees introduce themselves to the entire organization and share an interesting fact about themselves. At our last staff meeting, every single new employee said that they speak Spanish. Some even speak multiple languages.

I have no excuse for not learning Spanish myself, but there will never be a time that a person’s country of origin will be a barrier to our care. When it comes to caring for the working uninsured, we have no impediments, both literally and spiritually.

Why We Must Search for More Than Eggs at Easter

Why We Must Search For More Than Eggs at EasterGrowing up, I looked forward to Easter for one reason – the Easter egg hunt.

My mother would dress me in a white suit with a brown shirt, an ensemble that I would never select on my own. I didn’t care because I was single-minded of purpose: find as many eggs as possible.

It was years later that I realized that Easter had anything to do with Jesus. And when I did, I struggled to understand what Jesus being raised from the dead had to do with me. Over the years, what is known as “blood theology” was everywhere I looked. The idea goes something like this: Jesus must die in order for me to be saved and that his resurrection somehow validates that. To be completely honest, I have never been able to understand why Jesus must die for my sins. 

What I do understand is that God loves me and all of humanity, yet we are estranged from Him in ways that cannot be overcome by willpower. Something beyond my own doing is required. I believe that God’s love as expressed in Jesus is what makes it possible for me to know God’s love in this world, that through the life of Jesus and through the mystery of the experience of the resurrected Christ, I am able to know what the love of God means.

I believe that my faith in God as revealed in Jesus makes it possible for me to follow a path that helps me know the joy and love God created for me. This happens only through the grace of God that I experience through the community known as the Church.

Which naturally brings me back to Easter eggs and my white suit. I didn’t have this theological understanding when I was a child, and I fully realize that the way I see it now might change; it might even be wrong. I also don’t expect others to agree with me for us to look for Easter eggs together.

But I do believe that the search together is the glorious journey God has set before us.

Every day at the Church Health Center, I have the privilege of being with people who know that it is only by God’s grace that they can live a life free of pain. I get to help walk that journey with them, and we clearly walk it together.

Today is Easter, and I hope you will take the time to rethink what you truly believe. I hope you are grateful for those you spend each day with who take the journey of life along with you.

Even if we don’t fully understand how the mystery of God’s love works, I am confident that God will find a way to have us experience it in remarkable ways.

Dr. Scott Morris

Tales From India: The Memphis-Mumbai Connection

Tales From IndiaThis is the fifth and final installment of my blog series Tales From India.

Get caught up by clicking here, here, here, and here.

Three weeks in India burned images into my mind I am not likely to ever forget. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we saw signs of the well-known slums. Squatters build shacks that bump up against each other, row after row. Most are not more than 8- x 10-feet in size, yet each one houses about six people. Somehow they have electricity, and satellite dishes for television pop up all over this self-contained community of people whose way of life is poverty.

At the other extreme were places like the Taj Mahal Palace, the hotel terrorists attacked in 2008.

I understand why they chose it. Built in 1905 in the British colonial style, it is the most opulent place I have ever seen. The hotel sits on the Arabian Ocean and lacks for nothing. The terrorists sailed down from Pakistan, hijacked small fishing boats, came ashore in a fishing village near the hotel, entered the hotel, and began killing people.

And then there are the lavish structures built by today’s wealthy. The CEO of the Reliance Group has a house that cost two billion dollars. There are 650 full-time staff, yet only five people actually live there.

Everyone in India seems to accept the waste and disparity. But I don’t understand it.

We also visited a preschool. Shala, our friend who lives in Memphis but whose family lives in Mumbai, helped the school get started. A couple in their 50s opened the school less than a year ago to serve 120 children. The families, Hindus and Muslims, all live in the slums. The parents wash clothes, drive rickshaws, and serve the wealthy.

students in IndiaThe children were waiting for us when we arrived. They looked so much like the beautiful children of Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center operates in a Memphis public school. They sang and danced for us, just the way the Perea children do at Christmas. They all wanted their pictures taken. The boys were messing around and the girls were serious.

A banner on the wall said, “Memphis—Mumbai Connection.” I am so hoping we can connect Perea to this school.

Memphis Mumbai connection

school in Mumbai The principal talked with us about how the school works. They focus on teaching English, knowing English improves the children’s ability to go to better schools as they get older. Some of the parents told us their hopes for their children—to be policemen, nurses, even one doctor. It costs $200 a year per child. My mouth fell open when I heard that. The cost is so low because the teachers are paid very little. Everyone who works like this is paid very little. For $20,000 a year, they could start a new school. In Memphis, it would take a million dollars a year.

The disparity is so hard to process.

When we walked near our hotel, women holding their babies and begging lined the street. I had been told not to give them anything. There are places they can go for help. We say the same thing about panhandling in Memphis. I know that is true in Memphis in some ways. I was not sure it’s true in Mumbai.

This was the end of our trip. We had one last dinner. The fixed price menu was 6,000 rupees for a buffet.

I wasn’t all that hungry.

India flower