By Dirk Hoffman
Published March 14, 2023
During a Community Town Hall event March 1 at Hopewell Baptist Church in Buffalo, community members seized the opportunity to share their concerns about accessing quality health care.
The event was co-sponsored by the Jonathan Daniels Chapter of White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL) at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Health in the Neighborhood, a Jacobs School elective for first-year medical students.
”We want to have an open and frank conversation,” said the Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of Liberty Missionary Baptist Church and a clinical instructor for the Health in the Neighborhood elective. “Under the very best circumstances, we learn from each other.”
David A. Milling, MD, executive director of the Jacobs School’s Office of Medical Education and one of the faculty members for Health in the Neighborhood, pointed out it is the seventh year of the course, which addresses health inequities and disparities in the underserved neighborhood that includes Hopewell on the city’s East Side.
He noted the class meets at the Jacobs School, but also at Hopewell, “to talk about how racism has affected the health care community.”
“What we have found is the students who have participated in this course are really passionate about learning about the barriers to good care and what we can do to make it better — understanding the neighborhood — not from the standpoint of being doctors but understanding the people and the patients they are going to take care of,” he said.
Milling noted other members of the Health in the Neighborhood team are Rev. Dennis Lee Jr., pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church; Henry Louis Taylor Jr., PhD, director of the UB Center for Urban Studies; Jennifer A. Meka, PhD, director of the Jacobs School’s Medical Education and Educational Research Institute and associate dean for medical education; and Lisa L. Zander, project manager.
He also pointed out the elective was the “brainchild” of Linda F. Pessar-Cowan, PhD, emeritus clinical professor of psychiatry.
Shawn Gibson, a fourth-year medical student, told the audience it has been a challenging year for Buffalo — noting the May 14 racially-motivated mass shooting at a Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue and the tragic death of Jonathan D. Daniels, MD, former associate director of admissions at the Jacobs School, in a house fire July 4.
He noted that two clubs were recently started at the Jacobs School in honor of Daniels — Black Men in White Coats and WC4BL.
“We are coming to this event as a listening ear,” he said. “We want to hear exactly what you all want. We want to hear from you how can we give you the optimal care.”
The event featured a panel consisting of a community member, medical students and students from Leonardo da Vinci High School and the Health Sciences Charter School.
Zanny Harper, a deacon at Hopewell Baptist Church, said when the Health in the Neighborhood program first started, he had no idea that he had been suffering from “white coat syndrome” — an issue of doctor-associated anxiety.
“My primary doctor now understands — by me informing him — that when I come to the doctor’s office, I have anxiety about even being there. So, the first time you take my blood pressure, it’s through the roof. Now they have moved it, so it is the last thing they do during my appointment.”
Harper said another thing he learned is that he is actually in charge when he goes to a doctor’s appointment.
“Your doctor is performing a service for you.” he said. “I’ve learned to speak up and tell the doctors what my symptoms are, instead of waiting for them to tell me what’s wrong with me.”
Kwaku Bonsu, a second-year medical student and treasurer of the WC4BL chapter, noted the increased comfort level he has noticed people have relating to doctors who look like them.
“I was shadowing doctors in the emergency room at the Erie County Medical Center and one thing that stood out to me as a young Black man is that a lot of the patients — the demographic of the patients — looked like me.
“A lot of them approached me rather than the ER doctors because they felt more comfortable telling me what they needed,” Bonsu said. “That is just another reason why we need a lot more people like us in health care to serve the populations that we work in.”
A community member named Paula told the gathering that she wound up having eight abdominal surgeries due to a serious bowel blockage, that ultimately caused her to get sepsis and a fistula that drained for six months.
She noted she had previously been diagnosed with diverticulitis, but she just went about her life.
“I was a workaholic and it never bothered me, but eating roughage aggravated it,” she said. “If I had done more research on it at the time, I think it would have helped me find out what happened to me.”
Another community member named Cheryl shared that her mother passed away at the age of 54 from colon cancer and that her doctor had never recommended she get a colonoscopy.
“One thing we all have to remember is that you have to educate yourself,” she said. “Advocate for yourself and your family members. If you have someone in the hospital, you have to be there and make your presence known.”
Gibson added that doctors must also get to know their patients and advocate for them.
“If you are not relating to your patients, they are not going to trust you,” he said.
Fourth-year medical student Nina Valenzuela, secretary of the WC4BL chapter, said that medical students have to realize they have that power to advocate.
“If you see certain things you think need to be checked up on, advocate for that, even if it is not part of the original plan that the residents are talking about. Bring it up on rounds, bring it up to the team.
“I know that it is very tempting sometimes not to speak up. But at the end of the day, just remember it is the patient that matters,” Valenzuela said. “And if what you say can be helpful and beneficial to that patient, then go for it and be brave.”
Jayda Cooper, a senior at DaVinci, said she has been building relationships through her work with PATCH (Providers and Teens Communicating for Health) for HOPE Buffalo, a youth-driven program where teen educators lead workshops to share their authentic experiences, concerns and preferences.
Danise C. Wilson, executive director of the Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center (AHEC) based in the Department of Family Medicine, echoed developing relationships is important.
“One of the best experiences I have had in a physician’s office is when they will come and actually sit with me before opening the laptop, before checking my files. We are just having a conversation one-on-one.
“One particular doctor asked me to sit in the chair and not on the table so that we could converse,” Wilson said. “That moment in time immediately broke a level of anxiety for me because I knew she was really just getting to know me — no questions about charts or anything like that.”
Fourth-year medical student Sherice Simpson thanked everyone for sharing their stories and sharing advice.
“That was our goal. We wanted to hear from you so that we can go out into the world and be the kind of clinician you feel comfortable being seen by and being treated by,” she said.
Simpson, who is co-president of the Jonathan Daniels Chapter of WC4BL along with Gibson, said the goal has to been “to continue Dr. Daniels’ legacy and our focus is community engagement and social justice.”
Pointer ended the evening by asking for a moment of silence in honor of Daniels.
“I think it is important for people to know who Dr. Daniels was. He was a pediatrician, Buffalo born and raised — and that is important to us,” he said. “He was not just our colleague. He was our brother and our friend.
“It cannot be overstated, because there is no student in this room who is an underrepresented student in medicine that he did not have a direct impact on because he made it his mission.”