The scene could not be more familiar: A well-dressed woman sits beside a 4-year-old with a sore leg as he waits to see the doctor, while in a nearby exam room, another 4-year-old undergoes her annual checkup. This description could fit almost any pediatrician's office in America, but in this particular office there are some striking differences. For starters, the "office"—including two exam rooms and a nurses station, storage closet, bathroom, waiting area and receptionist's desk—is squeezed into a bright blue 32-foot van. Instead of sick patients having to travel to see a doctor, this doctor comes to their neighborhood. Pediatricians' offices are rare in poverty-stricken southeast Washington, D.C., where the mobile unit—officially, the D.C. Children's Health Project, a program of the Children's Health Fund—sets up shop five days a week. Forty percent of the patients are uninsured and seen free of charge; the rest are covered by Medicaid.
But the most remarkable aspect of life in the big blue van is the spirit of the place, embodied in the energetic, larger-than-life presence of 36-year-old Medical Director Gloria WilderBrathwaite, M.D. Dr. Gloria, as she's called by everyone, dispenses respect and love along with first-rate health care. And judging from the abundance of hugs exchanged with patients, the affection is mutual. "Love is universal," she says. "It transcends everything if you let it come into your life."
That doesn't mean things are easy in the van. "We see enormous tragedy," Dr. Gloria says. "We have kids who have never been vaccinated, and have diseases you're not supposed to see anymore. There are children whose fathers are on death row, children without shoes or jackets in winter, children of the working poor, and children whose mothers smoke crack. But even the most distressing situation can offer a glimmer of hope, an opportunity for self-respect."
What You Can Do
From the April 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!