Black in Arizona: Health

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In this episode, explore the struggles and empowerment of being Black in the medical field in Arizona as medical experts discuss the Black community’s health disparity. Discover Black doctors like Alyx Porter and Michele Halyard along with a discussion about Dr. Lucius Alston by filmmaker and actor Bruce Nelson. Also learn the history behind the first Black doctors in the Valley, what medical trust looks like in the Black community and how it can be improved. 

Bruce Nelson on Dr. Lucius Alston

He’s not only a filmmaker and actor – Bruse Nelson is also an ambitious historian of the Mesa, Arizona area. Nelson is eager to tell the story of Dr. Luicus Alston, the first Black physician in Mesa.

Dr. Alston was known as a personable man who wanted to treat and help others in his community. He delivered Nelson’s brother at his home office in Mesa, located at Pima Road and University Drive. Patients would often stop by his home for care. In some cases, Dr. Alston would treat them right there in his house. Nelson says that Dr. Alston did things that seemed unachievable.

“You think about it for a minute, being born around 1878 or something, having a vision of being a doctor. Reconstruction had just ended,” Nelson explains. Dr. Alston’s mindset was admirable to Nelson: “To be able to have that mindset and say, ‘I’m going to achieve this. I’m going to do this work. And I’m going to do it in the Black community.’” 

Michele Y. Halyard, M.D. 

Michele Y. Halyard, M.D. attended Howard University, becoming a well-known doctor at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Halyard explains the cornerstones and pillars of the Black community and the struggles of receiving care as a Black Arizonan. She also explains how Black doctors would often provide care for everyone including Hispanics, Native Americans and some whites who wanted reduced care. 

According to Dr. Halyard, the life expectancy of Blacks is less than any other group, mentioning chronic diseases with high rates within the Black community such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 

Dr. Halyard sheds light on the medical mistrust in the Black community as well. She says many symptoms that go undiagnosed in the community were worse at the start of the 20th century. Mistrust in the healthcare system stems as far back as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis. Blacks were intentionally infected with syphilis, given no treatment and forced to fight the infection naturally. 

Alyx Porter, M.D.

Now known as a renowned neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Alyx Porter grew up in Arizona. Along with her husband, Gregory Umphrey, M.D., they continuously see health struggles in their community. The lack of Black medical professionals led Dr. Porter to found a nonprofit called “Elevate Med” in an effort to elevate medicine to a place where the “workforce really reflects the population.” 

Dr. Porter discusses the current health of the Black community and shares her insight about opportunities for change, starting with the education of the community as a whole.

“That really starts with exposing people to healthy food, healthy lifestyles and improving our education system,” Dr. Porter explains.

Arizona is just a small part of the Black community as a whole. There is an entire world to explore of disparities within the community. Dr. Halyard said she believes “Arizona is a kind of a microcosm of what’s happening within the United States.” But she has hope that “over time, it will get better. I pray everyday that it’s going to get better. And time will tell that.”

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