During medical school, I spent several months at Hopital a la Dantec in urban Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. I saw things the unimaginable and the unbelievable. The ravages of polio and typhoid, amoebic abcesses, and tumors growing in places that I did not think possible. Without much of modern technology, medicine was a high art with diagnoses based on fever curves, skin turgor, lumps and bumps and the scattered, disconnected gaze of the truly ill.
It was there that I first learned that the odds of survival were stacked in favor of biology over medicine. It also became clear that the best medicine combines knowledge of, and respect for, your fellow man. Stripped to its essence, medicine is not about robots that fill rooms or drugs that delay the inevitable. Rather, in its purest form, medicine is simply a combination of touch, empathy and hope.
After leaving Africa, moved by the experience, I vowed to return. Not to Africa, but to these core values of medicine. And recently, this transpired in my own backyard. Several years ago, Janet Reilly approached me and asked whether I would help her start a free medical clinic in San Francisco. A clinic that would provide primary medical care to the working uninsured and their families: free care using volunteer retired doctors, for productive individuals who, despite their long days and nights on the job, simply do not earn enough money to afford medical insurance. Even with a busy men’s health practice in full swing, without hesitating, I said: “count me in; how can I help?”
Three years later, Clinic by The Bay is now open for business. Our opening event was last week. Located in the heart of the Excelsior district of San Francisco, the Clinic will become a much-needed medical home for the community. In a bright, open space on Mission Street, the Clinic is filled with care providers who believe that the practice of medicine is about respect and hope. It is a place where providers actually spend time with patients and listen to them. You have heard the promise of “personalized care” touted by genomic medicine, but honestly it doesn’t hold a candle to a good doctor who listens and responds to the real needs of patients.
Giving back to mankind in faraway places is indeed exotic, life changing and personally fulfilling. But giving back to your own community is all that and so much more. You make a difference every day, not just while you’re away. To me, it is the essence of noblesse oblige. In the words of Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” A salute to Clinic by the Bay, for helping me keep my promise.