A Physician’s Work Promoting Equity in Medicine – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
For the entire month of February, NBC will feature essays on black Americans who pioneered United States history during the civil rights movement that led to statewide desegregation. The pioneers include those who led local school desegregation efforts, professionals who have become shining lights in their industries, and proponents who directly fueled the wave of change in the nation’s quest for racial justice and equality .
Dr. Edward S. Cooper, 1st black president of the American Heart Association
I entered the Philadelphia General Hospital as an intern [and] I was the only black person outside of my internship class. There were two or three strokes every day, very serious. Half of them were black and the other half fatal.
Dr. Edward S. Cooper
If cardiologist Edward S. Cooper remembers his patient list spanning more than four decades, it will not be easy to say that one of his patients is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reginald Lewis included.
Notable and notoriety play no role in his set priorities: advancing medical science, showing compassion for patients, and continuing his family’s legacy in medicine.
At 94, Dr. Cooper emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Heart Association. When asked about his life, he starts at the beginning. Growing up in Columbia, SC, in a family of doctors and dentists, Cooper recalls knowing very early on that he too would become a doctor.
When Cooper was 7 years old, his younger brother was treated for scarlet fever at home. The prominent local pediatrician who was white made a comment that would leave an indelible mark. “He smiled at me and patted my head,” recalls Cooper, “and said,” You’re going to be a pediatrician one day. “
By the time Cooper graduated from primary and secondary school with high marks, that interaction had a lasting impact: “I imagined how I fitted into this core of professionals who helped people. … I liked science. I was good at science. … We had so few [doctors]and the need was so great. … During the depression, people pulled theirs out [own] Teeth, but if they had a stroke or a heart attack … they had to see the doctor. “
Dr. Edward S. Cooper, top right, poses with his family of doctors.
At the age of 15, his passion for science combined with his academic achievement allowed Cooper to attend Lincoln University and later Meharry Medical College – at a time when many of his classmates were drafted into combat during World War II.
“Pearl Harbor happened right in the middle of my high school year,” says Cooper. “So everything has changed. … I got a reprieve because they said they needed more doctors than foot soldiers. I agreed. I went to Meharry. “
While studying medicine, Cooper was tutored by a supporting faculty – mostly black professors as well as white professors from nearby Vanderbilt University. The Meharry environment encouraged students from all disciplines to strive for academic excellence. Although Cooper faced no discrimination on campus, he soon found that patient death rates in medical facilities varied markedly.
Dr. Edward S. Cooper, the former doctor of Martin Luther King Jr., talks about growing up under his family’s medical heritage.
“I came to Philadelphia General Hospital as an intern [and] I was the only black person outside of my internship class, ”recalls Cooper. “There were two or three strokes every day, very serious. Half of them were black and the other half fatal. … I was only impressed because the stroke was in the back of the textbook, in the back of the receiving station, in the back of the hospital. You couldn’t do anything. “
Although Cooper was troubled by this observation, he was not immediately forced to specialize in stroke. If his own health failed, his spirit and life’s work would change forever.
As an intern, Cooper developed a 104-degree fever and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Cooper’s feelings from this ordeal are just as strong today as they were more than 70 years ago: “I dreamed of coffins at night. My mother came and stayed two or three weeks. … One night I just felt so horrible and could barely breathe. I said, ‘Good God, if you can get me through I’ll be good. And I promise I will do something about this stroke problem. ‘“
An antibiotic cured Cooper of his illness. He later mused, “That experience taught me what patients really want: sympathy, tenderness, and hope.” Cooper kept his promise to God and embarked on a career that dramatically advanced stroke awareness, prevention, and treatment.
Over several decades, Cooper built a network of medical professionals and a reputation for patient care, in both stroke and heart health and general medicine. This was the case when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cooper and Dr. Harold went to Pierce for treatment for a keloid after he was stabbed. Cooper remembers treating Dr. King: “For four days – EKGs, blood tests, upper GI series – the whole thing works. … He was in excellent health.
“The thing that impressed me the most [King] was his eye contact – it was exciting. I mean, he would look at you like he was looking straight into the back of your head. I mean really unusual. “
But what happened next is all the more apparent to Cooper. “Once, [King] said: ‘Harry Belafonte is going to meet tomorrow. … So, I wonder if you could get someone to meet and bring them into the room. “Cooper was obliged to personally escort Belafonte into and out of the building through a hidden entrance.
Years later, Belafonte and Cooper recalled their shared experiences, with Belafonte reportedly saying, “I remember very well. As a huge amount of [Belafonte] The fans gathered quickly, Doc Cooper was like a cat on a hot tin roof. And I say pretty hideous. ‘”
Dr. Cooper recalls a life-threatening experience during his internship at Philadelphia General Hospital that shaped his approach to patient care and medical treatment.
While Cooper was trusted by many civil rights icons in the 1960s, he does not identify himself as an activist. But his work mirrors Cooper as a medical change agent. He is credited with pioneering research into stroke drugs and the closing of health gaps for Black Americans, particularly in relation to stroke treatment and education.
“We need to get people to understand how to prevent disease, so often through lifestyle changes,” explains Cooper. He urges people to quit smoking and work to fight the obesity epidemic “which is now causing so many cardiovascular diseases”.
Cooper continues, “We had a 50 percent decrease in stroke mortality after the stroke became more visible. People understood how to take care and how to prevent it. … It is still falling, but it is now balancing out because … they have diabetes and high blood pressure, all as a result of obesity. “
And with the recent plateau in the general population continuing, a group that is central to Cooper’s work time is disproportionately affected. He explains, “Black women are now getting more strokes than before. … That still leaves a lot to be done. “
Because of his commitment to fighting stroke and cardiovascular disease, countless Americans have been spared premature death. No recognition of Cooper’s contributions to medicine is more than his appointment as the first black president of the American Heart Association (AHA) in 1992. Because of his humility, Cooper’s reaction to the news of his appointment came as a shock: “I was absolutely speechless. I just couldn’t understand. But it happened. “
Dr. Cooper greets President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at an event where the President proclaims February as American Heart Month.
Cooper’s tenure at the AHA was marked by an increasing emphasis on the fight against stroke, which paved the way for a later new division of the organization: the American Stroke Association. He worked with the administrations of Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton to ensure clearer food labeling and to make February American Heart Month.
And he worked to recruit a greater number of minority groups in medicine, a responsibility Cooper understands very well, having benefited from a long family history of doctors and dedicated professors – of all colors – who worked into him during his early career had invested. Cooper shares a great hope for the next generation of doctors and wants young people to remember three simple rules that have helped determine their own success: “Stay in school, study hard, and strive for excellence.” remains very proud of his own family.
Dr. Edward S. Cooper shares his own medical heritage in stroke research and treatment and what still needs to be done to narrow the health gap for Black Americans.
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