Whenever he sighed, my grandfather would say, “Oh, to be healthy, wealthy and wise!” Wealth (modest, and in the form of real estate) he acquired, and certainly wisdom. And for most of the 13 years I knew him, he rode his bicycle nearly every day—often carrying one of his grandchildren on the seat at the back—took long walks in the afternoon and generally ate organically grown food, as most people in the Caribbean did back then.
He died of a stroke in 1964. He was 68. Strokes, it seems, just won’t leave Black folks alone. Forty years after my grandfather’s death in Guyana, they are the scourge of our communities, even in an America that proclaims its medical sophistication to the world. They vie with cardiovascular disease and cancer for the No. 1 spot among killers of Black men and women, while others, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, gird themselves to join the fray.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that amid the most awesome advances in medical research, science and technology, killer diseases that have stalked the earth for centuries still strike with impunity? Incredible as it may seem, millions of children die each year in Africa from measles and malaria, and hundreds of thousands are crippled by poliomyelitis. All vaccine-preventable, these diseases have been virtually wiped out in the United States.
In December, I was privileged to be part of the American Red Cross’s observer team at the launch, in Togo, West Africa, of the world’s first and largest integrated assault on measles, malaria and polio. In Lomé, the capital, I visited the hospital Bé and saw in the children’s ward the ravages of malaria for the first time in my life—even after spending a year and a half in Uganda and nearly six in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The most heart-wrenching case was 6-year-old Marco Togbe, who had contracted cerebral malaria. He had just awakened from a month-long coma and lay twitching and jerking in his bed, a skeletal form, severely brain damaged. Although Marco’s prognosis was grim at the time, his family and the hospital staff were overjoyed that the boy was still alive. Not so long ago, he would have already died. Mary Stephens, R.N., measles initiative leader of the Shasta, Calif., chapter of the American Red Cross and a truly wonderful human being who wears her heart on her sleeve, presented Marco with a teddy bear. Her eyes were brimming as she said, “He deserves it, don’t you think?”
The good news is Blacks worldwide are beginning to take greater responsibility for their health within and beyond the boundaries of conventional medicine. As TNJ this month celebrates its fifth annual health issue, we present for the first time a list of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners in the New York-New Jersey area. The list, which complements our traditional Top Doctors list, is by no means exhaustive, but it is evidence of a growing trend in the Black community toward new health-care options, a trend that has so much to do with our increasing wealth and the wisdom of our collective experience.
By Rosalind McLymont