Healing and Wholeness in Washington D.C.’s Historic Howard University Hospital

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Howard University Hospital, in Washington, D.C., was formerly the first Freedman’s Hospital, established in 1862 for the treatment of African Americans, particularly those who were formerly

Image from HowardsHeritage.wordpress.com 

enslaved.

Since 1967 Howard has operated the hospital, placing it at its current location. This February, Adventist HealthCare assumed management of the hospital with an eye toward strengthening its financial standing, continuing its legacy of graduating black medical students, providing more training outlets, and building a new hospital in the rapidly changing neighborhood. The fusion of fortunes for Howard and Adventist is worth noting here.

Howard graduates more black medical students than Harvard, Yale and MIT combined. Dr. Charles Drew was one of its famous practitioners, known for his research and advancements in blood transfusions. As it did at its inception Howard cares for patients who lack means, and according to the Washington Post, 85% of its patients are public pay. 

In a parallel universe, the four-hospital network Adventist HealthCare sprouted in the region from one hospital—the Washington Sanitarium established in 1907, and later called Washington Adventist Hospital. With a firm belief that one’s good health fosters one’s relationship with God and service to humanity, it incorporated modern health technique with a wholistic approach to healing.

One unfortunate link in the history of these two institutions makes this story fascinating and transformative. Washington Sanitarium received a very ill Lucy Byard one September day in 1943. A Seventh-day Adventist, known for her hospitality and vegetarian cooking, Byard and her husband sought treatment from the Sanitarium. However, when the couple arrived and the hospital staff realized the Byards were black, they turned them away. Ill as she was with liver cancer, and wasting away, the Byards left by taxi, straight to Freedman’s, the hospital that treated everybody. Unfortunately, however, Lucy died there a month later.

Seventh-day Adventists felt this loss, sorely. This faithful grandmother and church musician had been a devoted sister in the church. She entertained great and small, including leaders such as the former editor of Message, Louis B. Reynolds. Hence, in large part, her death pushed the call for equity in the denomination into a different sphere. Black leaders rightfully demanded fairness and access, immediately. White leaders—publicly chagrined and spiritually indicted—placated the request by “allowing” black leaders to govern their own affairs under the banner of Adventism. While the decision to do so may have lacked the sincere change many hoped for, the legacy has been exponential growth of the denomination among African Americans, and all people of color all over the world.

Now separated by seven decades, Anita Adams-Jenkins a black, female, Adventist hospital executive presents on the campus of the Howard University Hospital. She, and the hospital system want to redefine the relationship.

“I toured Howard University Hospital, and the workers didn’t know who we were. I was with some of the leadership at Howard. It was great,” said Adams-Jenkins, who started her profession as a respiratory therapist. She advanced into leadership, acquired her MBA, and managed virtually every hospital function until she became President of the A-rated Sycamore Hospital in Miamisburg, Ohio. Howard, though, is in a different neighborhood.

“What I really saw was Wakanda,” said Adams-Jenkins referencing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ culture-changing inspiration of “Black Panther” and its fictional,  technologically-advanced African kingdom. “I saw clinicians and nurses who knew their stuff, and I could help them go to that next level. I know this can be a very special place filled with people who take care of everybody with excellence and that they are the best of the best.”

I tell this tale of two institutions for two simple reasons. Observe, the intersection of race, need, and medical care 158 years ago. It understandably required specialized institutions to address the overwhelming need of formerly enslaved people. Yet the great advancements in medical treatments of our time still fail under bias in practice and lack of access for the underserved. Read in the right light, the Byard story painfully checks the heart of every practitioner.

I tell this tale, also, for the beauty of what can be. Imagine the health of our people when “Wakanda” embraces anew the community-healing, soul-nourishing and transformational practices that extend health, life, and knowledge of the Creator’s care and concern. That truly is next level.


This article is part of our 2020 March / April
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