Sister Anne Brooks, Doctor and Nun, Practices Without Preaching to the Poor
updated 03/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
There's money to be made here, though, because Tallahatchie County's rich alluvial soil yields $40 million worth of cotton a year. But that bounty has escaped Tutwiler's 1,200 residents, almost three-quarters of whom are black. Per capita income here is less than $3,000 a year. Most folks are farm workers, or maids who work for minimum wage or less. For those who don't work, because of health or lack of opportunity, there are government checks. A mother on welfare with two children gets $120 a month from the state, plus food stamps (78 cents a meal). In Tutwiler, a gallon of milk costs $2.95 plus 6 percent sales tax.
For the past three years Tutwiler has also been the home of Anne Brooks, 48, a physician and Roman Catholic nun. She became a nun in 1955 at age 17. She was in a wheelchair for 17 years after that. She's only been a doctor for the last four years.
There was no doctor in Tutwiler for a decade before Sister Anne came in 1983. The last doctor got in his car one day, headed north on Highway 49 and never looked back at this battered Mississippi River delta town. During those years Tutwiler's residents had to drive 15 miles north to the next county to see a doctor, which meant they had to have a car that worked and money for gas. Most have neither.
Tutwiler is not a town that can do without a doctor. The infant mortality rate is 23 deaths per 1,000 births, more than twice the national average, and one-fifth of the babies born here are born to teenage mothers, twice the national average. Illiteracy, mental retardation, malnutrition and disease are rampant. Slop jars substitute for indoor plumbing in one out of every five homes. Hopson Bayou, which runs through the town, churns with raw sewage. When doctors visited Tutwiler and the rest of Tallahatchie County, they reported in the 1985 Harvard University Physician Task Force on Hunger in America: "We really saw people as close to the brink of survival as one is likely to find in this nation."
"It's not easy to get a doctor in rural Mississippi," says Ira A. Ousley, 55, president of Tutwiler's United Southern Bank and a 16-year veteran of the town council. "We sought to find a doctor," but he says no one answered the advertisements that the town council ran in medical publications. "We don't have a golf course and no place for a doctor's sailboat. Nobody has any money; all we had to offer was a lot of people who needed health care."
That is why Tutwiler's mayor, the late Johnny Jennings, could hardly believe the letter he received in 1983 from Anne Brooks. She wanted to come to Tutwiler. If that wasn't strange enough, this doctor was a woman and a Roman Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. "We thought it was a joke," says councilman Ousley, who, like practically everyone else in Tutwiler, is a Baptist. "We wondered if she'd try to build a church or something."
Sister Anne knew why she wanted the job: "I was looking for the bottom of the barrel, and Tutwiler is it."
The town jumped at her offer and turned over its abandoned health clinic to her. The first thing she did was remove the partition in the waiting room that separated blacks and whites. Says Ousley, probably one of the few bank presidents who mans his own drive-up window and sometimes sweeps the floors at night, "From day one, she's been a success." Dr. Brooks treats everyone from plantation owners to cotton choppers.
She made it clear that she was a healer, not a preacher or a missionary. "I'm not here to make anybody Catholic. The faith of these people is deeper than my own," she explains. "I get tied up in my work, and I don't think of God as much as I should. God travels with these people."
The clinic has no fixed budget. It just runs, mostly on donations and whatever patients can pay, which isn't much. Some patients pay with catfish and collard greens. Lillie Mae pays for her care by peeling the labels off prescription bottles so they can be reused.
Lue Bertha left a note stuck to the door: "I am going to pay. I just an't had no money but I a show going to pay your because if it was not for your I would be dead today."
Last year, the clinic had charges of $233,000 and collected $186,000, much of it from Medicare and Medicaid. "These are proud people. If they feel they have to pay immediately, they just won't come," says Dr. Brooks, whose fee is $15 a visit. "I want them to come when they need me." She herself receives $460 a month, and the five nuns who assist her earn salaries "paltry in comparison to what they'd make in a hospital or private clinic," she says. Sister Cora Lee Middleton, 44, and Sister Zenon D'Astous, 53, are registered nurses, and Sister Lorene Schuster, 51, is a medical assistant. Sister Rita D'Astous, 59 (Sister Zenon's real sibling), runs the lab, while Sister Madelyn Hogan, 67, handles all the insurance work.
In its three years the clinic has treated 23,000 patients with ailments ranging from AIDS to cancer to rat bites. The main problem, explains Sister Anne, is malnutrition and its side effects: diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure and depression. "I can't change centuries of social injustice and economic slavery, but I can cure sick people and that's my job here," she says.
When Sister Anne arrived there was no pharmacy in the town. She conferred with Frank Dong and Edward Woo, who ran the drugstore in nearby Webb, and convinced them to open the W & D Pharmacy in Tutwiler. "We couldn't lose nothing, 'cause Daddy owned the building," explains Dong. Woo's sister, Janet, says, "Dr. Brooks is the only thing helping this town. She helps people in ways she doesn't even talk about. She teaches people to read, and she's always doing little things like getting clothes for people or buying them food."
Patients come to the clinic during visiting hours, and after hours they come to the rented ($225-a-month) two-story house where the nuns live. On a recent Sunday a wheezing, rattling white Chrysler pulled up in front. A mother, holding her 18-month-old baby girl and trailed by three friends, came into the living room. The child had a distended stomach, a fever and diarrhea. "Her body's down," said the mother. "I think she has worms." Brooks gently put the child on the dining room table and began examining her.
"Has she had anything to eat today?" Brooks asked the mother.
"A little pop and some Fritos."
Brooks concluded the child just had the flu, suggested some Gatorade, wrote a prescription for an antibiotic and told the mother to stop by the next day. Later she said, "People eat terrible things because they have no money. I asked a patient with diabetes to write down what she ate for a week so I could monitor her diet. She had a Vienna cocktail sausage or a hot dog and white bread for every meal. When people don't have good nutrition, they can't think straight, don't do well in school, and the cycle of poverty continues."
Sister Anne soon discovered other problems: Women don't drink water before going out in the fields to chop cotton because there is no place to go to the bathroom and they're embarrassed, so they become dehydrated; some diabetes patients can't refrigerate their insulin because they have no electricity; and some patients have no tablespoons with which to measure medicine. "You see things here you see nowhere else. I guess we're doing a lot down here, but nothing ever seems to change. Maybe I've saved a few people from having their legs cut off from the effects of diabetes. The system crushes these people, and they are good and decent people. You can't help crying sometimes." When that happens, Sister Brooks says she cries herself to sleep while listening to Mozart, on a bed that is a board with a mattress balanced between cinder blocks. "It's funny," she says, "I don't pray for specific stuff anymore. The list is too long. I'd give the Lord too much work. My plea is that the Lord will just take care of us all."
A look at Anne Brooks's past helps explain why she has chosen to live and work in a place like Tutwiler. She was born in Washington, D.C. in 1938, the only child of an alcoholic mother and a Navy captain father. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and her father sent her off, although she was not Catholic, to a Catholic boarding school in Key West. "I decided at age 11 to become a nun. At the time I needed a lot of love and these women gave it to me," she says of the nuns at her school. "Their selflessness and dedication really hit me. I wanted to be like them." She took her final vows as a nun at age 24, seven years after she had been stricken with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. She was told then that she'd be on crutches or in a wheelchair the rest of her life. Nonetheless, she went to Barry University in Miami and graduated with a B.S. in elementary education. She began teaching at Catholic schools in Florida, and despite her handicap she worked in her free time as a volunteer at drug rehabilitation clinics, abused women centers and any place else where people needed help.
In 1972 she met Dr. John Upledger, founder of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic and an osteopath. A specialist in chronic pain, he began treating her arthritis using osteopathic manipulation of the joints and acupuncture. He also changed her diet, started her on an exercise program and urged her into psychotherapy to see if perhaps her arthritis was stress related. Six months later she was out of her wheelchair. "Living as a nun at that time was stressful," she says. "I was a sister with the habit. I always wore a veil. I had no identity as a person. I think my unhappy childhood and the subsequent repressed life I led probably contributed to the stress that caused the arthritis."
When Dr. Upledger moved to Lansing, Mich. in 1975 to become a professor of biomechanics at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine, he kept in touch, urging her to come to Michigan to get a degree in osteopathic medicine. "She's real, the most honest person I've ever known," he says. In 1978, then 40, she finally heeded his advice. "I wanted to help people, like I was healed," she explains. A National Health Service Corps scholarship paid for her four years of study at the college on condition that she practice medicine in a medically deprived area for four years following graduation.
Her patients don't know too much about any of this. They just know that now she is in Tutwiler and that she cares about them.
Oudie Brown, 65, a retired railroad worker, broke both legs while crushing rocks a few years back. The legs healed, but the pain lingered. Recently, he stepped on a nail and it went clear through to the top of his foot. Now he's sitting in Dr. Brooks's waiting room. "I tell you something," he says. "I explain my thoughts to Dr. Brooks and she listens. She's never in no hurry. She takes my pain away."
Nannie Lee is 41, but she looks 61. She once jumped from a car traveling 60 mph because she was drunk and the man she was with made improper advances and she is a lady. She mangled her leg and was in a cast for six months and drank to ease the pain. When the cast came off, she says she started going around on her husband because he was going around on her. The courts took her children away because she was an alcoholic, and that made her drink even more. One day she went into the cotton fields to work and she thought Jesus was speaking to her, telling her to mend her ways. When Dr. Brooks came to town, she began counseling Nannie Lee. "My body was way down, but Dr. Brooks she treated me real good. She talked nice to me. She told me to be careful. And one day the Lord took the taste for alcohol out of my mouth," says Nannie Lee. "I don't drink no more."
Mary Lee, 46, is the mother of 11 children and a diabetic. She lives in a shack in the shadow of one of the few remaining antebellum mansions. Her roof is corrugated tin, her walls planks nailed together, and all of this is precariously balanced on cinder blocks. There's a wood-burning stove in the corner for heat but no running water. In the room is a bed, two overstuffed chairs and a color television set on which a commercial for Caribbean cruises is blaring away. Mary's husband, Leroy, stares at the advertisement while Frederick, their 2-year-old son, runs around barefoot. Up near the ceiling there is a crunching sound. It's a rat eating through the cardboard tacked up there to keep the wind out. When Dr. Brooks arrives, Mary Lee tells her how she has been feeling and that she's taking her insulin regularly.
Mary Lee is just one of Dr. Brooks's regular stops. She has put more than 91,000 miles on the odometer of her four-wheel-drive Wagoneer and seems to know something about every house and every person she passes on Tutwiler's rutted roads and overgrown paths. "The red house over there," she says, pointing, "I pronounced a baby dead. She weighed a pound. That's Richard's house over there. He's blind. A woman died in that barn up there. She was 37 and we don't know why. The county won't do autopsies because they cost $1,000.I found a man in that junk car over there."
Earlier this year she got up in the middle of the night and drove 15 miles to the Clarksdale Hospital and stayed with Mayor Jennings until he died. "It was good that I could care for him at the end and cheer him on, because that's what he did for me when I first came to this town," she says. The mayor was buried in his baseball cap. "He was looking good," she says.
In August Anne Brooks will have fulfilled her four-year obligation to the National Public Health Corps. She could leave Tutwiler then. She could go somewhere else, where people don't hurt as much and they eat better and they can pay their medical bills. But she won't be leaving, not this August, not next August, not ever. "This place has changed me so much. I'm less selfish; material things don't matter anymore. I've learned not to expect instant results. I learned that from the people here because one of the things poor people do is wait. They wait for everything: food stamps, the doctor, transportation, everything," she says. "I receive much more from these people than I could ever give them. I'll leave when they bury me."