“This feels more and more like a reunion every year,” Dr. Jacqueline Turner said of the 17th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon, which the St. Louis American Foundation presented on Friday, April 28 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac. “It’s our chance to reconnect and offer each other encouragement.”

Even more than that was offered at this Salute.

Dr. Turner, who was recognized as a 2017 Stellar Performer in Health Care, is founder of West End Ob-Gyn, now part of BJC Medical Group, and also on staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She is the personal obstetrician and gynecologist of Carol Daniel, the KMOX news anchor, newly elected president of the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists, and Salute emcee. Daniel stunned the capacity crowd of 450 when she confessed that Dr. Turner had not only delivered her two sons, but also helped and counseled her through the loss of two babies.

“She cares so deeply about us,” Daniel said of Dr. Turner, as she wept. “Not just our bodies, but also the soul side of it.”

It was that kind of Salute, where deep-soul reconnections happened before the eyes of a compassionate, supportive community, who wept – and laughed – along with the health care heroes (and their celebrity patients) onstage.

Norman White also wept onstage and summoned tears in the audience. Remarkably, he walked to the podium already quietly in tears. Like many in the audience, he wept at the ending of the video about his work made by Rebecca Rivas, St. Louis American reporter and video editor. The uncanny thing is that the ending of the video is moving precisely because it ends with White quietly weeping at the reality of children “who don’t get the right to grow up.” Watching himself weep on the screen, White was brought to tears along with much of the audience.

White is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and associate dean for community engagement and empowerment at the Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice. He was awarded the Dr. John M. Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award, sponsored by the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, for his work in a funded research project called Shut it Down: Closing the School to Prison Pipeline. He is working in seven elementary schools in the St. Louis Public School District to help administrators and teachers devise strategies to calm students who live in “risk-immersed” situations and to keep problematic students in the classroom, knowing that the suspension of a child is a pipeline to the incarceration of an adult.

White challenged St. Louis to be a “committed community” willing to work collectively in educating the next generation, especially the “risk-immersed” and traumatized. He described a conventional exchange of greetings from the Masai people of East Africa. “And how are the children?” is the conventional greeting, and the conventional response: “All the children are well.”

“We need to start asking that question,” White said. “‘And how are the children?’ And the answer has to be, ‘All the children are well.’ It’s the only answer.”

A similarly challenging tone was struck by Dr. Katie Plax in calling for more comprehensive, school-based health centers. The Ferring Family Chair in Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, she is the medical director of the SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens), which provides students with free medical, behavioral health and social services in coordination with community partner organizations. Her team at the SPOT was honored as the 2017 Health Advocacy Organization of the Year.

She advocated for their successful model at the SPOT to be expanded throughout the region. “We’re making a difference,” Dr. Plax said. “More comprehensive, school-based health centers can make even more of a difference.”

Comic relief came from Mark Sanford, executive vice president of Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers, who was recognized as a 2017 Stellar Performer in Health Care. He shared a serious message about devoting his long career to “providing access to greater care and better service and inclusion,” acting in his belief that “health care for all is to be provided with dignity and respect.” But he spoke in a mischievous style and interjected unexpected details, like that he learned new insights into his service population when he worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in East St. Louis by hanging out at “juke joints” on Saturday nights.

The St. Louis American Foundation also recognized seven health professionals with 2017 Excellence in Health Care Awards: Dr. Samuel Achilefu, Eddie McCaskill, Melody McClellan, Dr. Leslie Scott, Rachel Simon-Lee, Danita Smith and Elatris VanHook.

The 2017 Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards were celebrated at an uncertain moment for health care in the United States, with the newly elected president and the Republican majorities in Congress working on compromises for how to undo the Affordable Care Act. This troubling national context was added at the head of the event by Keith Williamson, executive vice president, secretary and general counsel of Centene Corporation, speaking on behalf of the event’s presenting sponsors, Centene Charitable Foundation and Home State Health.

“There is all this uncertainty, with what is happening in Washington, D.C., about health care and the treatment of the underserved,” Williamson said, “so it’s all the more important that we meet like this.”

The event’s gold sponsors were BJC HealthCare and Saint Louis University School of Medicine; silver sponsors were At Home Health Care and A.T. Still University; and bronze sponsors were St. Louis Children’s Hospital, the St. Louis Regional Health Commission and Washington University School of Medicine. The St. Louis American Foundation provides scholarships to area students from the net proceeds of its Salute events.

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