Dr. King’s birthday recalls the happiest year of my life, 1958 to 1959, when I was 28 years old. My family and I were in New Orleans where I began my residency in internal medicine at the famous Charity Hospital.
This special year was so fulfilling because until then I had pretended that I was someday going to be a doctor, “an opium eater in love with my starving delusions” Oliver Wendell Holmes (1.). All of earlier life was a shallow rehearsal for this moment. It was distant, trivial and almost seemingly irrelevant.
But July 1958 changed all of that. This huge municipal hospital, a relic of the Huey Long populist regime was the final refuge of the dispossessed of the city. Importantly it had a line drawn down its center with the white folks to the left and the colored to the right. Two sets of emergency rooms, two x-ray departments, two sets of delivery rooms, two sets of everything. As a resident we alternated between the two sides.
The experience was like a M*A*S*H unit. Only the sickest people were admitted, usually in extremis. I kept meticulous records of my admissions that I still have in my library. Of the 321 patients admitted to my care 14 percent, 43, died on my watch. I would prefer that you felt that this was more a reflection of the severity of their illness than my ineptitude. I cannot honestly recall being directly responsible for any deaths by inaction or dereliction.
I had a passion for each encounter. I arrived scrubbed, starched and ready on the ward at 7 o’clock each morning, frequently working straight through the night. Officially we were on call only every other night, but this often lapsed into the early hours of tomorrow. Forty hours straight was not uncommon. People lived and died depending on my, our, being in their moment.
Our resident group was paid $75 a month that was the standard for that era. This stringency however did not preclude our having a rare night out at Antoine’s, and in fact breeding our fourth child who turned out to be our doctor kid, Walter M. Bortz IV, M.D.
Each day was an orgy of opportunity and responsibility. Fatigue was not allowed! I loved it. Life’s meaning was at hand. I was an absentee member of the family. I still regret part of this misappropriation of my time.
Nonetheless these twelve months remain a proud and powerful moment of my life. Our Charity experience passed in an instant, leading on to other challenges in San Francisco, Munich, and eventually home to Philadelphia to practice medicine with my wonderful dad.
Dr. King’s birthday directly recalls the starkness of the segregation of my year as a medical resident. I was but a passive observer of the administrative state of this segregation, but nonetheless was there to witness the stupidity of the reality. Both the black and white patients were representative of our cultural neglect. Yet the blacks seem to endure their suffering with a gentle resignation. The whites in turn were disenfranchised, and often hostile to our efforts to reconstitute their lives.
The blacks were partners in our efforts. When a moment for discharge came the blacks always seemed to have a cousin or auntie available to receive them. For the whites their post-hospital site was arranged by some usually indifferent agency. The whites were aliens. The blacks had a sturdy social convoy to sustain them. The only physical difference between these groups was the skin color. Their organs and biochemistry were the same. But our same species’ nurture had generated very different cohorts.
Last week I saw the movie 12 years a Slave. It is a savage statement. I felt as though a branding iron was in my throat for what our white forbearers had wrought in the slavery of their day. What I experienced at Charity was only a minor remnant of the hurtful parts of the slavitude that pervaded the world.
“Praise God Almighty, I’m Free at Last.” Dr. King’s memory stirs me. I, we all are stained by the outrage of slavery past, and hopefully now sustained by the banishment of the prejudice that inspired it. “With Charity towards all” is a universal commandment.
1) Holmes OW Quoted in Fabricant ND, ed. Why we Became Physicians 1954 Grune and Stratton, New York.