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Podcast Transcript: Dr. Jack Geiger

Dr. Geiger in the exhibition at the opening

Elizabeth Cohen: Good morning and welcome. My name is Elizabeth Cohen and I am a medical correspondent with CNN Television and I am proud and honored to be the MC of this event today.

Elizabeth Cohen: And now we're going to hear from someone who has been stepping up to the plate in big, big ways in the United States. Dr. Jack Geiger is a founding member and past president of the Physicians for Human Rights group and he is an architect of the community health center network that we have in the United States, those are clinics that serve people who do not have insurance. Dr. Geiger.

Dr. Jack Geiger: Good morning. I'm a firm believer that too many lectures, too early in the morning is a human rights violation. [Laughter] So I'm going to try and be quick and make, in a way, just a couple of points some of which have already been made, but bear repeating.

Dr. Jack Geiger: The first is that it is possible to do stuff against the odds. The second is that what we're going to talk about illustrates the real meaning of global and that global includes us. It's not just everybody else in the world somewhere else. And the third is that I want to disabuse people of the idea, if they have it, that we had this all figured out in advance, the people who have spoken so far, myself, the people who are going to speak, and that it was all part of some orderly, planned, figured-out smooth rational path. Most of us stumble into our futures and the tasks that you're undertaking now as students are the tasks that are going to make you ready to change the odds, to change the societies that you live in, to change the societies elsewhere in the world and to have an impact on health. And to show you how circuitous that pathway can be, let me just say a couple of words about how community health centers in this country started and what's happened since then. But mostly how it was a process of unexpectedly putting different things together.

Dr. Jack Geiger: I went to medical school initially because I wanted to do nucleic acid and genetic research. That's a joke that makes the virologists laugh to this day. I realized very rapidly that I didn't have the patience to sit with one enzyme system and that anyway, I busted most of the things in the laboratory. I passed organic chemistry lab on the promise that I would never come back. [Laughter]

Dr. Jack Geiger: And I got to thinking about why I was there in medical school, and I began to think about how one could use medicine and healthcare to change the society in the ways that made people sick to start with. Something that my old friends Aaron Shirley who you've seen and Bernard Lown who you've seen have thought about. It turned out that I had been involved in civil rights since I was a teenager. I'm really going to date myself, beginning in 1943 with the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) going on later to SNCC the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was a lot of my life it was a lot of my work and even before and during medical school.

Dr. Jack Geiger: And while I was in school, thinking about changing the society, I found out about this peculiar invention, of all places in apartheid South Africa, where a group of students, the real change agents in the world, had gone on to become doctors and invented something called community health centers. The root idea of which was, you didn't just take care of patients one by one by one, you took care of populations. You put clinical medicine and public health back together and you tried to change the circumstances in which people live as well as the questions of health and illness. I thought, if it's real anywhere it must be real there and I wrangled a way to go there for five months out of my senior year in medical school and working and studying in two places, in the Pholela Health Center in the exhibit, one of the poorest, sickest, most miserable places in South Africa and the Lamontville Health Center in a Zulu public housing project on the edge of the city of Durban. It changed my life and I knew for sure what I wanted to do was called international health and I came back and did all of the training for international health that I thought was appropriate. Which took me to 1964.

Dr. Jack Geiger: And 1964 was freedom summer, voter registration, the peak of the civil rights movement, The Spring when James Chaney and Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner got killed and buried under a dam in Mississippi and a thousand kids were going to come down, plus all the indigenous civil rights workers, to Mississippi that summer and a group of us from across the country founded the Medical Committee for Human Rights to provide medical care and presence for all those folks that summer and I went to Mississippi for July and August to coordinate all of that effort and took a long look around and realized that I didn't have to go to Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia. Global include us, we had populations, not at the same absolute level of poverty depravation and illness as in many of the places you've heard about overseas but at the same relative level. Poverty, premature death, infant mortality, dangerous environments, lack of education, unemployment, miserable living conditions, and I remembered those community health centers at a meeting that fall in Mississippi, Aaron Shirley was there, other colleagues and friends were there and thought why don't we try and have community health centers in this country. Not what I had started out to do. Putting together the civil rights, the medical training, the international experience, the concern for populations. And you want to talk about against the odds, we had no idea there were just those two of them, the two community health centers, one in Mississippi, the other in a public housing project in Boston, and today as you'll hear there are more than 1000. They operate at more than 4000 different places in the United States. They operate in rural African American communities, in the urban ghettos, in Hispanic communities, in migrant labor communities, in public projects, in school based clinics, they serve people of color, African American, Hispanics, whites in Appalachia, whites in northern Minnesota, Native Americans on the reservations, we've got plenty of people in need here as well as all of those needs you have heard about overseas. And the community health center network now every year takes care of 15 million people in the United States.

Dr. Jack Geiger: It turns out, if you're lucky, if you seize the moment, if you study hard without being locked in too early to I'm going to be this or I'm going to be that, or I'm going to do the next thing, and if you stay open to the new idea and find colleagues like some of the people you've seen on screen and some of the people you're going to hear from in the rest of this morning, you really can buck the odds, you really can make the globe a different place, you really can change the world and nothing could be more exciting than to have that in your future. Thank you for this moment of your time.

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