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Published in CenterView on November 25, 2013
Dr. Aaron Shirley
Dr. Aaron Shirley

Shirley receives AAMC award for promoting health-care justice, availability

By Gary Pettus

The highway wasn’t safe for Dr. Aaron Shirley, a physician and civil rights leader whose faith in coincidences had been shattered by many near-misses on the road.

So the trip to Jackson that day in 1965 was not only risky, to him it also seemed hopeless as he sought to become the first African-American resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, an institution that figured to be as segregated and hidebound as the rest of the state.

As it turned out, he should have brought a change of clothes. Shirley was accepted and put on call that same night.

“I think it was a test,” he said with a smile 48 years later.

Not only did he pass muster, Shirley went on to excel, forging a distinguished career applauded most recently by the Association of American Medical Colleges. For his work in promoting justice and availability in medical care, the AAMC gave him its Herbert W. Nickens Award at a conference earlier this month in Philadelphia, Pa. The honoree also received $10,000 and a standing ovation.

The award, Shirley said, “came out of the blue.”

“It means I have some legitimacy in what I’ve been trying to do over the years,” he said. “But the biggest surprise was the source. My career hasn’t been in academics.

“In that organization, I could be considered an outsider.”

That’s a role he’s used to, and one that has earned him the admiration of his colleagues.

“Dr. Shirley is my Gandhi,” said Dr. Mohammad Shahbazi, a Jackson State University public health professor who is working with Shirley to develop a more effective primary care health system for rural Mississippi. “He has spent his entire adult life trying to do something for the community, trying to solve problems in a non-bureaucratic way.

“It’s not to show off; he does it for the love of it, and that makes him different.”

A graduate of Lanier High School and Tougaloo College in Jackson and Nashville’s Meharry Medical School, the Gluckstadt native started a general practice in 1960 in Vicksburg, where he was barred from practicing medicine in the white-run hospitals. Shirley had grown up in that same segregated society in Jackson, where even the water fountains were separate.

“I didn’t dare drink white water,” he said.

In Vicksburg, though, he wouldn’t swallow disenfranchisement, either. He and his wife, educator Dr. Ollye Shirley, encouraged blacks to register to vote, in spite of such disincentives as poll taxes, literacy tests and bombings.

“People were frightened to death,” he said. “I told them, ‘You just got to do it for your children. And for yourself.’”

He had a white friend, a man who ran a liquor store and often picked up loose talk. He’d call Shirley and tell him, “Be careful tonight.”

In that climate, Shirley believed he had no chance of being accepted as a resident in pediatrics – his first love. He had been offered a slot at the University of Oklahoma, but he couldn’t take it for another year.

He applied at UMMC on a lark or, as he once put it, “for the hell of it.” Immediately after Shirley’s second interview, Dr. Blair Batson accepted him. Shirley went right to work.

“I will always give him credit for being courageous, especially in those days,” Shirley said of Batson, then chair of pediatrics. Years later, after he completed his residency, Shirley asked Batson how he managed to “pull it off.”

“He told me, ‘I didn’t ask anybody’s permission.’”

Dr. Kimble Love, now practicing in Hattiesburg, was the chief pediatric resident when Shirley broke the racial barrier.

“He did all of his work with no problems that I know of,” Kimble said. “He was conscientious and could be depended on. And he had absolutely no qualms about asking questions.”

Although there were exceptions, most other physicians ignored Shirley, who usually ate alone in the cafeteria. This neither astonished nor particularly bothered him.

“I wasn’t there to make friends,” he said. “It was custom. I would rather have it that way than have phony pretense.”

What did surprise him was the reaction of some parents.

“I was kind of expecting that when white parents saw me, there might be a double take. That never happened,” he said. “It said to me that when it came to the well-being of their children, race didn’t matter.”

Over the years, he did make friends at UMMC and across Mississippi because of his work with the poor.

“I saw sick, sick babies who didn’t have to be that sick if they had had appropriate care,” he said. In response, he built a legacy that includes:

   • founding the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, which serves the uninsured and underserved;

   • establishing a school health clinic that became a model for the nation; and

   • spurring the creation of the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center, a one-stop shop for medical care and other services.

Shirley’s contributions prompted Dr. LouAnn Woodward to nominate him for the Nickens Award.

“His lifelong search for ways to deliver cost-efficient, accessible health care motivates him still, into his 80s, and he looks for solutions in surprising places,” wrote Woodward, associate vice chancellor for health affairs and vice dean of the School of Medicine. “He has both taught and lived his convictions.”

Those convictions led him to work with Shahbazi on a proposed “health house” system based on a model developed in Iran: Trained community health workers offer preventive, routine care for the rural poor.

“It’s low-tech, low-cost intervention that makes a difference,” Shirley said.

This strategy, whose summit would feature community hospitals, prompted a July 27, 2012 cover story in the New York Times Magazine, “Dr. Shirley’s Plan to Save Mississippi.”

Shirley has had almost half a century to ponder where he would be if he had abandoned Mississippi, or if Batson hadn’t taken a chance on him.

“It occurred to me that it would have been cowardly to leave,” he said. “I would have kind of disappeared into the sunset.”