DePorres Health Center

The DePorres Health Center in Marks, Mississippi opened in 1981 under the auspices of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. This clinic began with the approval of the Bishop of the Jackson, MS diocese. The health care provider-physician was a Dominican Sister who recruited several other Dominican Sisters to minister with her. From the beginning the clinic had the support of the local people, both political and business, to provide health care in this medically underserved area. It was the plan of the Sisters to eventually have the clinic independent with its own Board and Incorporated status. This plan was realized in 1991. The sisters remained as the health care providers at the clinic. As some sisters left others came.

My time there as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth and a nurse practitioner began in 1997. The other nurse practitioner was a School Sister of St. Francis and the physician was an Adrian Dominican sister, as was the finance director. The Catholic presence, less than 1% of the total population, was doubled, even tripled with the presence and ministry of the Sisters. There were local people on the staff who provided the ancillary services.

The health needs of the people there were many. Poverty causes many health problems. People with diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, heart disease, depression, as well as other health problems were seen at the clinic regardless of the ability to pay.

The rural area has many difficulties due to lack of services especially transportation and employment. Many people were unemployed. Those who were employed worked in small factories such as catfish processing plants, necktie factories, or traveled to casinos where they worked for minimum wage and no benefits. Those who had their own cars often were not sure if their vehicle would be reliable due to the age of the vehicle and the expense involved in maintaining a workable vehicle.

Housing was of poor quality for many people. Most of us would not consider living in or paying rent for the shacks people called home. The culture of the African American community believed in providing a place for all to stay so many small houses would be home to as many as 10 or more people. The city lines were drawn to exclude the poor of the African American community. Thus, there were no city services including running water. Some people had working telephones, most had televisions but to receive any program’s one needed to have cable. Computers were not even a thing people desired. Their own day to day survival was the biggest concern for most people. The larger world picture was not of concern to people. When the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, many people there could not identify with the collapsing of such super structures–to them a three story building was a tall building.

The churches were a very important part of the lives of the people. Their faith in a loving God is what often sustained them. It was sharing that faith that enabled me to desire to work in what could have seemed like a God forsaken area for many. For as long as I can remember I have had the belief that all people deserve the dignity of receiving excellent health care. In working with the caring women religious and staff I was privileged to serve with like-minded people of faith.

Change

Some changes that took place from 1997 to 2003 were good. Many of the streets that were gravel/dirt roads have been paved. The city limits were redrawn to include all streets so city services, including running water are now available to all people. The city received a grant to improve housing so some of the worst shacks have been torn down and replaced by double wide trailers.

Some things are worse now than in earlier years. Some of the small local factories have closed and moved to areas outside the United States. Thus, unemployment is higher now than five years ago.

Even with these changes the people still struggled from day to day to meet their basic survival needs. Their health care was still provided at the clinic and medicines obtained through the patient assistance programs of the Pharmaceutical companies.

Due to some changes and conflict with administration, the Adrian Dominican Sisters left the clinic in late 2002. The other nurse practitioner and I hoped we could stay and work through these changes. However, in early 2003 we felt we could not continue there. The Catholic presence was lost to the clinic and the county. The clinic continues but without the Catholic presence and the faith-based support on which it functioned for so many years.

There were many frustrations, such as: the slowness and difficulty to accomplish social change; the lack of political will to seek to provide the basic needs for the good of all citizens. I have the energy to do the direct care but how do I have the time and energy to do the things to accomplish political and systemic change?

For future missionary activities I would recommend that a group of like-minded committed persons be found to share life and ministry. This support is very necessary for the continued growth of the mission and the personal growth of each person involved. It is important to have the support and blessing of a larger community. It is important to have some nearby resource to keep one in touch with local state issues for advocacy and legislative issues. Keep a link to local church for ongoing nourishment of faith. Provide structures for on ongoing evaluation and accountability so that the mission will be able to continue after one leaves the ministry.