I will always share the story of a most unique experience I had only 3-4 years ago.
I was climbing out of my car at a nearby Walgreen's parking lot. I was unfolding my wheelchair and preparing for transferring into the wheelchair when an elderly black female came to me with a warm look and an inquisitive face. She looked at me, closely, and suddenly said "Ricky?"
Ricky is a name I was called throughout childhood, though it's a name I'm not particularly fond of now and only a few individuals, mostly extended family, dare to us the name.
Still, I acknowledged that she was correct.
"Propes,?" she further inquired.
"That's me!," I agreed with more than a little hesitation.
"I was your nurse when you were born," she replied.
"Wait. What?," was going through my mind.
She explained that nearly 50 years earlier she had been part of my treatment team when I was transferred from Lebanon, Indiana's Witham Memorial Hospital to what was then known as Marion County General Hospital, a county hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana where I was taken after the nearby children's hospital had declined to accept my transfer.
It was 1965. I was born with spina bifida. I was not expected to survive. I would most certainly never thrive.
But, survive I did. Indeed, at least on some level, thrive I also did.
"You had such a spark of life in your eyes that we just knew you would make it," she said while I sat there in awe that someone could remember me as a newborn having never again seen me until this very moment. We spoke for a few more moments.
She parted. I sat in my car and cried tears of joy.
I loved my time at Marion County General Hospital, a county hospital with an incredibly diverse population of staff and patients where I was loved and nurtured and guided throughout well over 50 surgeries and a childhood filled with immeasurable doubts and immense unknowns. It gave me a lot for the black community that continues to this day. I was raised in a black neighborhood, attended a largely black university, and to this day continue to live in a black community on Indy's eastside.
All this to say that I loved The Color of Medicine: The Story of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, a feature-length documentary co-written and directed by Indy native Joyce Fitzpatrick along with Brian Shackelford that shares the history and legacy of the iconic Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Opened in St. Louis in 1937, a time when America still had segregated medical care, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital boasted the highest number of black doctors and nurses in the world and became one of the first institutions in the country to treat African-Americans in a safe, hygienic, and sterile environment.
While The Color of Medicine largely focuses its lens on the hospital itself, the film also exposes the long important battle the African-American community has fought to receive quality medical treatment and training. It's a battle that continues, of course, as evidenced by the undeniable inequity during the COVID-19 pandemic and as also evidenced by the hospital's controversial and downright militaristic closure in 1979.
The Color of Medicine is beautifully, and I'd dare say lovingly, constructed and powerfully captures the importance of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital to St. Louis. In its premiere screening in St. Louis, the screening attracted an audience of 2,000 people. To this day, the subject of the hospital's closure is difficult for those who remember the hospital, located in an area known as The Ville and treasured for its relentless commitment to quality care and to quality opportunities for African-Americans to be trained in areas of medical expertise.
At nearly two hours, The Color of Medicine takes its time telling the stories that matter utilizing both archival footage and modern-day interviews. Named after Homer G. Phillips, a St. Louis attorney and Republican who was considered one of St. Louis's key black le`aders, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital was created thanks to Phillips's ability to secure the necessary $1 million in funding. He was murdered in 1931; the suspects, who were witnessed shooting him, were acquitted and the case has never been "solved."
The stories that unfold in The Color of Medicine are fascinating and of relentless interest. They include stories from and interviews with historians, educators, doctors, and nurses. The interviews take an incredibly emotional turn when the time comes to begin talking about the hospital's closure, a sign, most assuredly, that continued building up of the African-American community continues to be a fight.
The Color of Medicine covers the post-hospital life of what once was Homer G. Phillips Hospital; it's a resolution, perhaps, but it's a resolution that remains controversial as some consider it as positive as one might hope while others still grieve and still lament and still refuse to accept the compromise for a hospital that was groundbreaking in the United States and never really needed to go away. It was a symbol of pride and, well, it still is a symbol of pride for those who worked there and those who received quality, compassionate care and training.
The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital picked up the Best Feature-Length Documentary prize at Black Film Festival Montreal and Best Documentary - Feature in the I See You Awards. Picked up by indie distributor Vision Films, it's now available on digital and VOD.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic