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- September 13, 2004
- Vol. 62
- No. 11
Healing the Past
Dr. Ron Myers Treats the Mississippi Delta's Long Legacy of Poverty and Racism—One Patient at a Time
Bad roads are the least of what Myers, 48, faces in Tchula, a city of 2,300 in overwhelmingly black Holmes County. Dirt-poor, remote and struggling with a legacy of racism, the area has an infant mortality rate of 11.9 per 1,000 births, nearly double the national average. Myers routinely treats patients ravaged by high blood pressure, diabetes and other afflictions that are treatable if caught early. "When I first got here, I saw women who had never had a mammogram, who had tumors the size of a baseball," Myers says. "Of the first 200 breast exams I gave, six women had tumors. There was no way I could see that and just pack my bags and leave."
Myers hasn't just stayed—he's thrived. In 1989, the ordained Baptist minister and family practitioner created the Myers Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds four health clinics in the Delta. Aided occasionally by volunteer medical students, Myers says he clocks some 50,000 miles a year on the region's rural back roads, making house calls to those too frail or isolated to reach him. Although a doctor with his training could earn six figures in private practice elsewhere, Myers and his wife, Sylvia, 45, who runs day-today operations at the clinics, support their two children on $45,000 a year and live in a mobile home in nearby Belzoni. "If I was into money," Myers says, "I wouldn't be in the Delta."
The pay isn't great, but the gratitude of patients like Eliza Callahan is priceless. During a recent visit to the 86-year-old grandmother's tidy home, Myers spends as much time talking about Callahan's family as he does examining her. After checking her blood pressure, he asks if they can pray together. Callahan nods, saying, "Your prayers go a long way. Some folks' prayers don't get out of the house. Yours get all the way to heaven."
Not everyone in Holmes County thinks the doctor is on the side of the angels. Myers has emerged as a vocal critic of local catfish plants, a mainstay of the Delta economy. He says many of the factories have been poorly ventilated, and the knives employees use to gut fish during grueling 8-to 10-hour shifts aren't kept sharp enough, leading to a host of health problems, including high levels of arthritis in young workers. He has confronted plant owners, called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect a catfish plant and holds a Buffalo Fish Festival on the same date as the industry-sponsored catfish festival. Dick Stevens, president of Country Select, calls the charges baseless and says Myers is a self-promoter. "He claims to be 14 types of Jesus leading everyone to the Promised Land," says Stevens. "He's a smart guy, but he's way out in left field."
The harsh words only spur Myers on. The son of Marion, 77, and Neoma, 75, both retired educators, he grew up middle-class in Milwaukee admiring the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and his dad. "My father was always advocating for his students. I learned all this agitating from him," Myers says with a laugh. As a freshman premed student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was inspired by a pastor who challenged him to use his education to help the poor and a meeting with famed activist Fannie Lou Hamer. "She said she could see that one day I'd be down in the Mississippi Delta, working with her people. That was what I wanted to do from then on," Myers says.
After graduating from medical school in 1985 and marrying Sylvia two years later, Myers fulfilled Hamer's prophecy. He moved to the Delta as part of the National Health Service Corps, which sends doctors to under-served areas. While serving in Belzoni, Myers noticed that Tchula didn't have any doctors. "Health officials said Tchula was too poor to have a doctor. What kind of logic is that?" he asks. He and Sylvia opened the Tchula Family Health Center in an abandoned restaurant, running up thousands of dollars of debt on their American Express card. Since then, Myers's efforts have made a difference: Fewer women wait until their final trimester to seek prenatal care, breast cancer and strokes have dropped, and he says even childhood diseases like pinkeye have plummeted. "Doc is educating women [about] why he has to examine their breasts, why he's asking them if they're sexually active, why they need to have mammograms routinely," says Sylvia Myers. "He needs to be a rabble-rouser."
Now Myers is taking his activism far beyond Holmes County. Earlier this year, he traveled to Kenya to plan a program to train doctors and provide health care. But hometown patients remain his priority. During a recent house call, Myers learned Penny Hogan, 42, a former catfish worker who is unemployed, was among the 65,000 people in the state recently dropped from Medicaid. "What are you gonna do?" he asks. Hogan shrugs and says, "I don't know." Myers embraces her. "I'll take care of you, sister," he says. "I'll take care of you."
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