It’s said that when an elder dies a library burns down. In the case of our friend Dr. James M. Whittico Jr. – who passed on August 21 at the age of 102 – we lost a vast medical library, including the medical histories of individuals and the families of many of the people reading this newspaper. Dr. Whittico was honored as the St. Louis American Foundation’s Lifetime Achiever in Healthcare in 2006 when he was 90 years old and still practicing medicine. Indeed, he was a “Lifetime Achiever” in a special sense – he provided medical care for almost his entire life, retiring only in 2015 when he had lived nearly a century.
With Dr. Whittico also passed an era. He worked his way indomitably, yet gracefully, from a segregated era when black people were excluded from white institutions and had to train our own physicians and heal our own people. No one should feel nostalgia for Jim Crow, as those of us old enough to remember its humiliations and limitations can attest. Yet segregation did have the effect of concentrating black excellence and energy within the black community, in institutions such as Homer G. Phillips Hospital, where Dr. Whittico trained. As the first African American awarded a full clinical professorship at a historically white medical hospital in St. Louis who never stopped caring for black families, Dr. Whittico spanned the heyday of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, when St. Louis was a mecca of black medical tutelage and practice, to the present day, when every medical school and hospital is (at least in terms of policy) accessible to all. Of course, economics – the ability to pay – remains a barrier for many, including a disproportionate number of black folks.
When you lose someone who embodies our history, including our health as Dr. Whittico did, it begs the question of what are we going to do to keep his memory and legacy alive? This means more than what things are we going to name after him, though we expect Dr. Whittico to become the namesake of more institutions, programs and scholarships. It also means we need an answer for: What are we going to do to continue his work? What are we going to do to heal our people and keep them healthy?
“I got my flair for taking care of people from my father,” Dr. Whittico told The American. “He was dedicated to his job as a physician at a time when people had nothing. I saw him get paid with chickens or a head of cabbage.” We don’t expect physicians to work for heads of cabbage in the 21st century, but Dr. Whittico’s example compels physicians – especially, but not only, black medical doctors – to work in under-served communities and to serve the poor.
Moreover, his example compels us to fight for policies that ensure all people, including the poor, have quality health coverage that will compensate the physicians who care for them. This policy shift requires electing candidates who promise to enact more humane policies regarding healthcare.
At the federal level, this means reelecting U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill. McCaskill voted for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), signed up for coverage herself on the exchange created by the act, voted against repealing the ACA, and is co-sponsoring a resolution that would direct Senate lawyers to defend against a lawsuit trying to kill the ACA. Her Republican opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, is one of 18 state attorneys general who filed the suit to kill it. Hawley is a supporter of President Trump, who has made a series of moves to gut the ACA, including reopening the market to the short-term, so-called “junk” health plans outlawed by the ACA. A vote for McCaskill on November 6 is a vote for better health care and a vote in memory of Dr. Whittico, as well.
At the state level, many promising, mostly young state legislators won primary elections in August, including Karla May, who will become Missouri’s third black female state senator and the second representing St. Louis. Unfortunately, the Republican supermajority in the Missouri Legislature has failed to expand Medicaid, leaving millions in federal dollars on the table. Republicans in the Legislature have shown some pragmatism in recent sessions, and emerging Democratic leaders like May and state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. are eager to work across the aisle to benefit their constituents.
However, the best long-term hope is to pass Amendment 1 on the November 6 ballot. Among other moves to clean up Missouri politics, it would ensure that neither political party is given an unfair advantage when new maps are drawn after the next census, by adding criteria for fairness and competitiveness of the overall map, which will be reviewed by a citizen commission, and keep compact and contiguous districts. Missouri may be a red state, but it’s not nearly as red as the current state Legislature. More fair districting would make Democrats and their policy agenda on matters such as healthcare more competitive in Jefferson City. A vote for Amendment 1 also would be a vote in Dr. Whittico’s memory of his empathy, service and magnificent spirit.
“The medical field has lost a giant whose shoes cannot be filled,” his friend and younger colleague, Dr. Denise Hooks-Anderson said of Dr. Whittico. Though that is certainly true, we must shoulder some of his load and keep moving in the direction he was always headed, which was toward a healthier community.