"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Do unto others

By on August 24, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Jim Brown

By Jim Brown, M.D.

Many of you, I suspect like me, have been shocked or at least surprised by the racial divisiveness that has become more apparent in our country.

I decided to share some of my thoughts and experiences with race in my lifetime. I was quite isolated from these issues growing up in the ’40s and ’50s in Sioux Falls, SD, which I suspect was one of the whitest states in our country. 

There were Native Americans, but they were primarily on reservations west of the Missouri River that divided the state in half. These native people were basically out of sight and out of mind to most of us. 

My high school was the largest one in the state with about 2,000 students, which included only one Black person. I now regret not getting to know him more than I did. 

When I went to college at the University of Nebraska, there were few Black or Brown students. It seemed to me the few blacks were basketball players, and we had little contact with them. In fact it wasn’t until 1947, when the Nebraska student council voted to have the University pull out of the Big 6 conference unless they eliminated the color line for all athletes that changes started. 

In 1951 Charles Bryant walked on to become the first four-year letterman of color in Nebraska football. I also remember clearly seeing Prentice Gautt, who was Black and the first Black to play football on scholarship at the University of Oklahoma in 1956, his and my freshman year. 

He was a trailblazer in many ways. After an Oklahoma game in Tulsa on their way home, the team stopped at a diner to eat. The owner told Prentice he would have to eat alone in the basement because of his color. 

Prentice left and went back to the bus. As he got on the bus the entire team had followed him and said if he couldn’t eat, then none of them would eat. 

Pentice went on to star at Oklahoma and later in the NFL for seven years. After that, he returned to college at the University of Missouri and graduated with a PhD in Psychology.

When I entered medical school as a freshman at Northwestern University in Chicago, our class had 128 students, which included seven females, three Asians and one Black. 

The current medical school class there now has 159 students chosen form 6,878 applicants and includes 83 female. Of this class, there are 66 whites, 58 Asian, 22 Hispanics and 13 African Americans. 

Lynn and I married as soon as she graduated from college at the University of Nebraska and I was starting my junior year in med school. We rented an apartment in south Chicago, which was not only 50-50 percent integrated but was also half the price of apartments in north Chicago. 

Lynn fortunately was hired by the American Medical Association to be a graphic designer. Every morning she took a bus at 6:30 to head north to work. She was often the only white person boarding the bus. The rest were Black females heading north to service jobs cleaning houses, apartments and offices. 

I headed either to the medical school or to one of it’s affiliated hospitals. I spent a lot of time at Cook County Hospital, a public hospital built in 1912, which at its peak had 4,500 beds and 100,000 admissions annually and was one of the largest hospitals in the world. 

When I was there, nearly all the patients were poor, low income and predominantly Black. 

As a junior in medical school, two of us would be assigned to night duty in a ward with about 40 patients. We admitted the new patients and tried to figure out what they had wrong and what to do about it. We were truly green novices. 

Fortunately, we had an intern above us who had received his or her MD degree, and if he or she was stumped, a resident physician could be called. In our eyes that person had to know everything by then.

 I will never forget the day a nurse gave me a card from one of the patients who had just been discharged. It was a note to me thanking me for my care and enclosed in it was a $5 bill. 

This brought tears to my eyes knowing how little these patients had. He had left before I could thank him, but I still have that card as a reminder of why I went into medicine.

Chicago is very hot in the summer. One August day, I got home early and since we were about four blocks from Lake Michigan I just had to go to the lake to swim to cool off. 

When I got there, there were hundreds of people sunning and swimming, all were Black. I was undoubtedly the whitest human they had ever seen. No one said a thing to me, and I was grateful for that. I had a glimpse of what it might be for them when our roles were reversed.

I remember vividly my thoughts when I was on a surgical rotation, and we were operating on a Black patient. What struck me as we were cutting through the skin was the extremely microscopic layer of melanocytes that produce the melanin to color our skin, which was the only thing anatomically different from that patient and myself. 

The melanin produced is there to protect the skin from the dangers of the sun, obviously more important for people originating in hot, sunny areas like Africa. 

One microscopic layer — it is hard to understand how this layer of cells is the root of much of our racism. Other than that layer, anatomically we are one and the same.

Having spent time in Mexico annually for over 20 years, or doing medical work in Guatemala, as well as in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thailand border, I have become more and more aware of what we have in common rather than what separates us. 

We all have the same hopes, dreams, and desires. The “One” that I follow said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

I think we are all on this journey together. 

Rather than shame those who seem different from us, we should seek solidarity with each other. The better we know each other, the more alike we realize we are. 

The more we understand each other, the more we will look at each other with eyes of compassion, which can lead to love, and we can help relieve the sufferings of our fellow human beings. 

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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