Third in a series marking Black History Month.
For David Satcher, MD, all roads lead back to Atlanta where he graduated from medical school 50 years ago. It was there that he adopted the belief that being a black physician meant a lot more than setting up a private practice.
Satcher has had an amazing public health career that has included serving as the U.S. surgeon general during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and simultaneously as assistant secretary of health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
He also has served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, president of Mehary Medical School in Nashville, president of Morehouse Medical School in Atlanta, and in many other leadership roles in academic medicine and public health.
Today, he brings his many and varied experiences back to his Atlanta alma mater, where he heads the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Kaiser Permanente’s decades-long mission — providing preventive care, promoting healthy lifestyles and working to eliminate disparities in health care — dovetails beautifully with Satcher’s initiatives over his long career.
While surgeon general from 1998 to 2002, Satcher adopted what he called “Prescription for Healthy Living”:
A constant warrior for eliminating disparities in health care, Satcher founded the leadership institute in 2006 to train health care leaders intensively to bring new, inspired energy to the battle for parity in health care.
He takes a quote from civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., as the Satcher Health Leadership Institute’s mantra:
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Satcher has not been afraid to push for ways to improve the health of everyone, with special emphasis on breaking down barriers for minorities essentially locked out of the health system by financial constraints.
Pushing for unfettered education and realism to promote sexual health, Satcher has bumped into controversy along the way. He has also been a strong proponent of reaching the mentally ill population through primary care and preventive services.
Satcher grew up in an environment that did not treat African-Americans as full-fledged citizens: when he was 2 and deathly ill with whooping cough and pneumonia in Anniston, Alabama, his only hope — because of hospital segregation — was the one black doctor who came out to the family’s farmhouse to treat him.
“Dr. (Fred) Jackson told my parents he didn’t expect I would live out the week,” Satcher related. “But my mother refused to give up. She stayed up with me all night, my older sister told me, and breathed for me when I couldn’t on my own.”
As a young child, Satcher heard of the near-death drama many times: “My mother never let me forget it!” he recalled with a laugh. As a result, Satcher vowed at age 5 or 6 that he was going to be a doctor just like Dr. Jackson.
“I had no idea what it was going to take to get there, but I was as certain as anything in my life that I would,” he said.
In 2013, the University of California at Berkeley honored Dr. Satcher with its Public Health Hero award, along with J. Michael McGinnis, MD, senior scholar at the Institute of Medicine, who has worked with four U.S. Surgeon Generals in his career.
Raymond Baxter, PhD, Kaiser Permanente’s national senior vice president for Community Benefit, Research and Health Policy and a longtime friend of Satcher, presented the award to Satcher, noting the honoree’s vast contributions to public health over his long career.
Earlier the same day, Satcher met with Kaiser Permanente leaders and presented his core concepts on leadership. He applauded Kaiser Permanente for its vision for Total Health and for its rich history in primary care and prevention.
In accepting the award, Satcher said he was a “debtor” who owed his success to many people who contributed to his life. He said “Public Health Hero” with the relish of someone who had to pinch himself to believe the honor was his.
Satcher called out the person to whom he is most indebted: Anna Curry, his mother. “I dedicated the entire year of 2013 to Anna Curry. She was born 100 years ago on Feb. 28, 2013.
“She was the 16th of 17 children and she was to have 10 children of her own. My parents never finished elementary school. . . . When I got sick, she had just lost one child and she wasn’t going to let another one go.
“If it wasn’t for her I would never have made it out of childhood.”