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Meeting the Minds | Dr. Chidi Achebe

Medical care: The next civil right

Dr. Chidi Achebe's black male patients used to brag that he was the first doctor they'd seen in 20 years.

Then, he'd diagnose them with heart disease or late-stage cancer -- and get frustrated he couldn't do more to help.

Now, instead of waiting for them to visit him, he spends his free time at churches, barber shops and cab stands, encouraging men to get regular checkups.

"My grandfather had prostate cancer; my own father was diagnosed early and was cured," Achebe said. "This is not about some fancy Harvard doctor telling people what to do. This is real."

Achebe, who is a Harvard graduate, sees the struggle against inequalities in health and health care for African-Americans as the next stage of the Civil Rights movement. And, he also has become a leader in that battle for equality -- a role that comes naturally to a man who has been surrounded by distinguished, educated black leaders for much of his life.

His father is Chinua Achebe, the celebrated author of what is widely considered the seminal African novel, "Things Fall Apart: A Novel." Growing up, Achebe got glimpses of the best black-American culture had to offer -- meeting black luminaries like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Max Roach. Those experiences strengthened a desire to make his own contribution.

Summers spent shadowing his uncle, who ran a hospital in Nigeria, showed him how.

"I decided I wanted to make a difference in other peoples' lives, without condescension," he said. "I felt that medicine provided that."

Now, as director of the year-old men's health program at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, he has that opportunity. By choosing to work at a community health center, Achebe is able to see patients even if they can't pay -- but he has discovered other barriers: Male patients seemed to consider themselves immune from sickness.

"We began to look and see why the men are not coming, and there were a number of reasons -- cost, time, lack of trust in the medical system," he said. Culturally, too, "there's a sense that going to the doctor in some way makes you a bit vulnerable and weak."

So, Achebe has pushed his medicine beyond the doctor's office.

On a warm Sunday last month at Grace Church of All Nations in Dorchester, he presented black worshipers with a litany of the health problems that routinely trim years off their lifespans -- prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, HIV, lack of access to health care strike black men earlier and more often than they strike white men.

"We want people to please sign up [for health screenings]," he said. "To make a commitment for yourself and for your children; for the black community; for the country; for the world."

While churchgoers milled around after the service, men and women thanked Achebe profusely. Some told tales of cancer that has run through generations of their family. Several men signed up for free health sessions, to screen for HIV and prostate cancer; three others got their blood pressure checked, in a mock-up of what will be a large-scale effort by Whittier at churches across the Boston area.

One patient was warned that his blood pressure was too high, and made an appointment to see Achebe the next day.

"Are you scaring me, doctor?" asked John Wyche, 62, whose blood pressure had jumped dramatically since the previous men's health initiative was held at the church in the spring.

"When it's that high, you can actually have a stroke," Achebe explained. "It takes on urgency."

Church visits also give Achebe and his team other tools in their guerrilla attack on minority health problems -- a database to draw from, and contacts in the community who trust them.

Dumas Lafontant, director of mission-based and wellness initiatives at Whittier Street Health Center, said it's important to patients and the community that a Dartmouth- and Harvard-educated doctor has chosen to work at a neighborhood health center. "Patients," he said, "will have access to physicians who are highly trained, just like white patients have."

The men's health clinic used to see 100 men every six months; over the last month, 35 men came in for appointments. That's great, but not enough for Achebe.

"I want bigger," he said. "Men from every city -- those people go home and tell their brothers and their sons."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at