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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams - The Heart of Medicine

All we go with Day #7 of Black History Month, and I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make the Thursday Diaries reflect that.  As many of you might have guessed by the picture that I use for my profile, I’m not black.  Therefore, I couldn’t very well tie my own experiences to Black History Month.

So, I decided to try looking at it from another angle.

And thanks to a tip from one of my friends (thanks Bailey!), I believe I have a solution for how to approach it for the first week, and I hope that by reading this, you might gain a new appreciation for not only Black History Month, but also another theme month that is also happening during February.

Confused yet?  Don’t be.  Everything will be explained below.

February 7, 2013

Can you believe that we’re into the month of February?  I know it seems like a week ago that I was complaining about January being incredibly slow, and yet February just seems to be speeding right along.  Though, I shouldn’t be too shocked by that.  Even on a leap year, it’s still the shortest month.

February is also a very special month for a couple of reasons.  I’m sure that if you’ve been keeping up with this blog the past week, you know what the first reason is.  I’ve always toyed with the idea of featuring a “Black History Month” in this space for a while now, and in 2013, I decided that I wanted to attempt it just to see if I could keep up with it for an entire month.  Not only am I surprising myself by coming up with twenty-eight distinct topics for discussion this month, but I am also learning a lot about the contributions and the ideas that have been shared by African-Americans, African-Canadians, etc.  Some of the facts that were discovered, I already knew, but in my research I’ve come across a lot of different discoveries that surprised me!  I’ve always had much respect for “Black History Month”, and to learn just how much of an impact the discoveries and inventions that black people have created for our modern world is admirable, and that’s why I decided to make a month long feature on some of these people.

Granted, most of them are figures within the world of pop culture.  But on this and the next three Thursdays, I thought that I would use this space to talk about key figures who have made a difference in the lives of how people live, and more importantly, how people treat each other.

And, it is because of this that I’ve decided to provide a link between “Black History Month” and another month-long event that also takes place in the month of February.

I’m not entirely sure what the event is called in other areas of the world, but in Canada, February is recognized as “National Heart and Stroke Month”.  Did you know that cardiovascular disease is responsible for almost thirty per cent of all deaths recorded in any given year?  And that heart disease is the number one killer of women?  Those are some sobering statistics right there.

I’m sure that we all have known someone who has had to battle heart disease, had a heart attack, or a stroke.  I know that my family has been touched by all of the above.  My grandmother passed away in 1991 from a heart attack at the age of 65, and my grandfather suffered a series of strokes before he died at the age of 78 in 2001.

In Canada, there are a number of charities and organizations that are dedicated to supporting people who have lost loved ones to heart disease and stroke, and there are annual events that are taking place this month to raise awareness.  One such event began in 2003 by the American Heart Association.  The organization (in partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) created the “National Wear Red Day” to get women to become aware of the fact that heart disease was the number one cause of death for women.  Although it’s a bit late to mention this by now, the first Friday in February is a day in which women and men are to show support for fighting against heart disease by wearing the colour red.

The following year, the “Go Red for Women” program was launched, which is designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health, as well as banding together to combat heart disease.

Can you believe that the “Go Red for Women” movement is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year?  In those ten years, the movement has spread cross-country, and even Canada is taking part in this event to celebrate heart health.

You know, I have to give a lot of credit to the cardiologists out there, who work miracles every day.  They work tirelessly to make sure that people’s hearts are functioning properly.  Whether it be checking up on patients to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves, or performing open heart surgeries in hopes of unclogging arteries within the heart, I certainly have a lot of respect for them.

Of course, none of that would have been possible had it not been for those who pioneered the practice known as open-heart surgery.  And, this is where “National Heart and Stroke Month” collides with “Black History Month”.

Did you know that one of the very first cardiac surgeries was performed by African-American surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams?  And, that’s not the only claim to fame he has to his credit either.  We’ll get to that a little bit later.

Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1858 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the son of a black barber and a Scots-Irish woman, and was the last of five children.  His father passed away when Williams was just nine years of age, and the family moved to the state of Maryland when Williams was a young boy.

At some point during his childhood, Williams had decided that he had wanted to go into the field of medicine, and he graduated from Chicago Medical College in 1883, at the age of twenty-five.

Unfortunately for Williams, despite the fact that he had his certification to practice medicine, no hospital in the Chicago area would touch him.  It wasn’t because he had not done well in his studies, or that he was incapable of handling the pressure of the job. 

It was because of the colour of his skin.

Yes, racism was still alive and well in the late 1800s in America, as all of the Chicago area hospitals barred black doctors from practicing medicine.  And, this frustrated Dr. Daniel Hale Williams to no end.  He knew that he could save lives, but was working in a district that would not give him a chance to prove himself.

So eight years after graduating medical school, he took it upon himself to open the doors to all African-American doctors and patients in the area.

In 1891, the doors to Provident Hospital opened up its doors making it the first Black owned and operated hospital in the United States.  The hospital was designed with the purpose of treating patients who were black, as well as being the first hospital of its kind to train doctors and nurses of African-American background.

Two years later, Williams would become one of the first people to perform cardiac surgery on a patient when he was forced to operate on a person who sustained a critical knife wound. 

The year was 1893, and the patient was one James Cornish.  Cornish had been stabbed in the chest with a knife, and the resulting injury left him with a torn pericardium.  Although Dr. Williams was not the first person who had ever done surgery on the heart, he did perform the surgery without the use of penicillin or a blood transfusion.  The surgery was performed on July 10, 1893, and ended up being a success (though it took Cornish approximately two months to fully recover from the trauma).

Later on in the year, then American President Grover Cleveland appointed Dr. Williams as surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C.  He was in charge of organizing the hospital, but he also helped create a training school for African-American nurses within the facility.  He also worked as an attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, co-founded the National Medical Association for African-American Doctors in 1895, and was only African-American doctor to become a chartered member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.

He really helped open the doors for African-American people, didn’t he?  Just think about it for a second.  How many lives do you think have been saved because of the fact that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams made it possible for doctors and nurses of colour to practice medicine?  I would estimate thousands at least, if not millions.  That’s why his contributions to the world of medicine should be celebrated.  Not just because he was one of the first people to perform a successful heart surgery, but because he was the first person who helped demolish the colour lines to ensure that everybody had the right to good, quality health care.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams died in Michigan on August 4, 1931, aged 73.  But his name still echoes through the chambers of hospitals everywhere.  Stevie Wonder immortalized him in song on his single “Black Man”.  Have a listen below.

And perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments, the foundation of Provident Hospital, still exists, though not in the same form.  Due to financial difficulties, the main hospital site was shut down in 1987.  However, in 1993, the facility reopened within Cook County Hospital to provide services to people in Chicago’s South Side.  It is now referred to as Provident Hospital of Cook County.

So, there you have it.  We looked at “Heart and Stroke Month”, tied it to Black History Month, and paid tribute to a man who helped bust down barriers within the medical community.

And it was an honour to type every word.

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