Activist surgeon honored

Award: Dr. Rose-Marie Toussaint, an organ transplant specialist, is named "Phenomenal Woman."

July 24, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Each year, Jeffrey Wright looks for a woman, not just any woman, but a phenomenal black woman worth celebrating.

Last year, he found Lola Willis, who started a museum to honor the children slain on Baltimore's streets. This year, he found Dr. Rose-Marie Toussaint, a renowned surgeon working to change the way people think about organ transplants.

He has a party all set for her tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Slam Poet queen Gayle Danley will be there, along with comedian Jay Phillips and Just Us, a group of young jazz musicians.

"It is a celebration of womanhood, a day to give them the accolades," says Wright, 33. "The black female, she takes a double-whammy. There's a lot of sisters barely making it."

The idea for "Phenomenal Woman" came to Wright during his years teaching at Guilford Middle School. He saw single mothers trying to protect their children, trying to shepherd them through life.

"I just thought that was incredible, and I said, these women's stories have to be told," says Wright, who quit teaching after repeated threats on his life. Married with a baby son, he figured he could do something else with his life. Now he gives private tutoring sessions in math and reading.

In Toussaint, he has a truly "phenomenal woman." Born in Haiti, Toussaint grew up in the United States. Her interest in science took her to medical school. She became a transplant specialist and directed liver transplant services at Howard University. Two years ago she left the university to write her autobiography, "Never Question The Miracle: A Surgeon's Story." She also began a private practice and founded the National Transplant Foundation Inc.

"You're talking about a lady who went a route many people couldn't endure," says Wright, his voice growing in excitement as he recounts Toussaint's journey. "I thought that was a good story for everyone to hear."

Last January, he picked up the phone and called her. It was a long shot. She was famous. He was just a Baltimore guy from Northwood. He got her answering machine.

"I said, `You're probably very busy; something like this would be so minute,' " he says.

She called back, excited. Here was a chance to carry her message to an audience wary of the medical profession.

"I know with black people, they're skeptical. You remember Tuskegee?" says Wright, calling to mind the government's notorious syphilis experiments. "And then the AIDS scare."

Facts and preposterous rumors, apocryphal tales of people being knocked out and waking up later minus a kidney -- that's what Toussaint has to fight. More than 60,000 are waiting for donated organs; 42,000 are waiting for kidneys. Basketball star Sean Elliott is one of the latest additions.

Successful transplants can be tremendous financial burdens; $25,000 to $50,000 for a kidney, $110,000 to $130,000 for a liver. With luck and money, Toussaint hopes her newly incorporated foundation will help defray the cost for needy patients.

One of the foundation's goals is to help people understand the life and death issues of transplant surgery. Each year, 4,000 die waiting for transplants. Some transplants would not have been needed if people controlled their diet, exercised, took better care or themselves. When transplants are needed, there are not enough organs. Toussaint thinks the shortage could be alleviated if people considered the spiritual nature of the body and the soul. In death, she says, the body can give life.

"Parting with an organ is really, to me, a testament to your faith and your spirit that goes on to greater heights," says Toussaint, 42, who promises not to burden the crowd with her philosophy. "It's a party and people really don't want to hear a lecture."

Willis, whom Wright selected last year, was as surprised as Toussaint to be called.

"I thought, `Me? I'm a phenomenal woman?' " she says. "Sometimes you don't think about yourself being that. You just think that God is doing this."

Willis was the toast of the evening last year. She stood on stage with Bea Gaddy, the advocate for the homeless.

"To be there with Bea Gaddy was phenomenal to me, she says. "One of the things that Bea Gaddy said to me is that there's a lot of people doing good in our community."

Wright wants to find those do-gooders and make them the stars of a summer evening of comedy and jazz with a message.

"You know," he says, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Phenomenal Woman begins at 7 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $25. Information: 410-902-7645.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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