Doctor retires after 27 years at East Baltimore clinic Neighborhood, patients feel loss

April 26, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

He was always there, for 27 years, at work in the stolid brick building on a forsaken block in East Baltimore.

"He was our family doctor, the only family doctor we ever had," says Bradley Thomas. "So much of what I remember from my childhood is Dr. Huang."

And so much of what Dr. Shi-Shung Huang remembers is: boys like Bradley Thomas who have grown into successful men, mothers who now send their grandchildren to see him, children who left the projects and went to college and are rearing healthy families.

He is 59 years old now and weakened by lung cancer. This month, Dr. Huang retired from his job as director of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Community and Family Health Center, a clinic in the 1000 block of E. Baltimore St.

Over 27 years, he tended to an estimated 55,000 patients, most of them too poor to afford private doctors. Five public housing projects were within walking distance of the clinic.

The people he's left behind talk about the graduations he attended, the money he quietly lent, the food he provided, the summer jobs he got for neighborhood kids.

"I would like to see GBMC name the clinic after him," says Mr. Thomas, now a pharmacist and drug store owner. "Now. Not after he's gone."

Dr. Huang's wife, Margaret, and two sons -- one a doctor, one a lawyer -- look after him now. Three retirement parties have been thrown in his honor, including one at GBMC to which he walked from the hospital bed where he was being nursed for a fever. "Everyone thought I was so weak, but after I listened to 10 people talk, I talked for 17 minutes," he says. "It helps me to talk about my clinic."

Dr. Huang had not intended to spend his career as head of a family clinic. Born in Taiwan, the ninth of 10 children of a father with an elementary school education, Dr. Huang trained at the National Taiwan University School of Medicine and came to the United States as an intern in 1962. In 1963, he arrived in Baltimore for his residency, planning to specialize in pediatric gastroenterology and go into private practice.

But in 1965, as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, the federal government appropriated funds for community-based clinics for poor children. And GBMC, with help from the Baltimore Health Department, opened the Community and Family Health Center at the site of the old Presbyterian Eye, Ear and Throat Charity Hospital. Dr. Huang was invited to join the staff.

"I was very, very fascinated with the idea," he says. Within six months, he was the director.

In 1966, clinics were rare. People went to private doctors. If they were too poor to pay a family doctor, they waited until they or their children were very sick, and then they walked or took a bus to a hospital emergency room.

Irona Pope, a former resident of Perkins Homes who brought her five children to the clinic, says it wasn't unusual to see children with legs bowed from vitamin deficiencies and babies burned on housing-project radiators. Baby boys weren't circumcised because hospitals wouldn't cover the cost for poor families, Mrs. Pope says. And no one knew how much damage lead paint could do.

"Primary care was episodic and crisis-oriented," Dr. Huang says. "There was no continuity. For people who survive day to day, meal to meal, medical care is a very low priority."

The clinic staff intended to change all that. Health care there was to be of the highest quality. Patients would see the same doctor each time they visited. And at the same address, patients could see a dentist, an eye doctor, nurses, psychologists, social workers.

"At the beginning, of course, it was all a trial," Dr. Huang says now. No one understood how such a clinic could work.

"We went to schools and community groups to explain."

They began a parents' club, whose meetings would feature a doctor or psychologist or social worker discussing health and social issues.

They offered cooking classes and flower-arranging classes to get people used to visiting the clinic.

"We had our own little newspaper we put out," says Mrs. Pope, who has spent decades as a clinic volunteer. "We had bazaars. We had carnivals. We had concerts."

If a parent didn't bring a child back for a follow-up or an immunization, a community outreach worker called or knocked on the patient's door. If a parent needed child care, the clinic could provide it.

"This is the way health care should be," Dr. Huang says.

"When he started there, it was just a teeny little dark building," says Marilyn Dower, 35, Mr. Thomas' sister. "Dr. Huang worked so hard." Now living in Northeast Baltimore, Ms. Dower brings her young sons to the clinic. "There's never been a better doctor," she says.

"Dr. Huang gave unconditional love," Mrs. Pope says. "He listened to your complaints. He gave advice. When people were short of food or clothes, he'd give it."

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