Former MUSC diversity director honored

October 05, 2018
Thaddeus Bell, M.D., in front of the health center named in his honor.
Health center in Summerville named for Dr. Thaddeus Bell. Photo provided

Thaddeus Bell was working at the VA hospital in 1980 when family grocery store owner Elijah Wright came to him and said he wanted Bell to help start a health clinic in Cross, a small community in rural Berkeley County in need of medical care. 

“I said, ‘Well, how much y’all going to pay me?’ And he said, ‘Nothing. We don’t have any money to pay you.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” Bell recalled, chuckling. For 10 years he worked from 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in the health center nearly 50 miles from downtown Charleston. 

That health center was eventually named in honor of Wright and absorbed into the Franklin C. Fetter Health Care Network, a network of health centers in Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Colleton counties. 

Last month, the newest center in the network was named in Bell’s honor. 

Bell has served on the network’s board for 20 years, and fellow board members managed to keep the honor a surprise almost up until the new Summerville center opened. They celebrated with a ribbon-cutting Aug. 15. Bell said he was elated, humbled and grateful.

“Most times, people don’t get a building named after them until they’re dead,” he said. 

In naming the building for Bell, the board honored more than his service to the Fetter network. Bell, an MUSC graduate, has spent his career fighting to improve the health and health care of African-Americans. He’s done so by spreading health information to the black community where people will hear the information, via radio spots and social media. And he’s done so from within the hallowed walls of academia, having served as associate dean for minority affairs in the MUSC College of Medicine and as director of the university Office of Minority Affairs. 

Now 74 years old, he still maintains his private practice in North Charleston, speaks at churches across the state nearly every other weekend and works for Closing the Gap in Health Care, his nonprofit organization that seeks to decrease health disparities and increase the health literacy of African-Americans and underserved communities. 

Bell established the annual Lowcountry Jazz Festival, which raises money to fund scholarships for two African-American students attending any of MUSC’s six colleges. The Thaddeus John Bell and Family Endowment Scholarship will be given in perpetuity annually. Encouraging more African-Americans to become doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care professionals is one way to decrease health disparities, he said, citing a recent study showing black men were more likely to follow through on preventive care when they were advised by a black doctor. 

Working within the system

Bell describes himself as a proud graduate of MUSC but notes the atmosphere here was quite different when he was a student in the ‘70s. It hadn’t improved much when he returned to the College of Medicine as associate dean for minority affairs in 1993, he said. 

“I had a whole lot of trepidation about coming back, because I frankly didn’t know whether I could make a change.” 

But Layton McCurdy, dean of the college and vice president for medical affairs, promised his full support and, within a couple of years, recommended that President James B. Edwards, D.M.D., hire Bell as director of the university Office of Minority Affairs

Bell’s position required frank talk with his bosses. The African-American graduation rate wasn’t good, and MUSC’s reputation among African-American students throughout the state was bad. So Bell convinced Edwards to invite the presidents of South Carolina’s historically black colleges to MUSC to air their opinions. 

“I wanted Dr. Edwards to hear firsthand from the presidents what they thought about MUSC. We had an open and frank discussion, and he listened very attentively,” Bell said. 

The college presidents told Edwards their graduates were successful elsewhere, so they couldn’t understand why they weren’t succeeding at MUSC. Edwards took the presidents’ criticisms seriously and told Bell they needed to figure out a way to make MUSC the place that black South Carolinians looked to for medical education. Out of that discussion came the Summer Institute, a program that still exists today to increase the number of minority students and students from underserved areas of South Carolina. 

During his tenure, Bell also established the Earl B. Higgins Achievement in Diversity Award and worked to establish programs to increase the admission, retention and graduation rates of African-American students. 

Michael de Arellano, Ph.D., senior associate dean for diversity in the College of Medicine, noted that Bell’s efforts still resonate.

“The impact of his work at MUSC is clearly felt today, including the continuation of some of the pipeline programs Dr. Bell started in order to help recruit students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine,” he said.  “We are grateful to Dr. Bell for his work during the development of MUSC’s diversity efforts that have contributed to MUSC becoming a national leader in diversity among medical schools and for his work in our community that has helped to improve the health care of traditionally underserved populations.”

Closing the gap 

Bell had long noticed racial disparities in health outcomes, but it was a speaker at a National Medical Association convention in 2005 who inspired his current work with Closing the Gap in Health Care. The speaker said that physicians in private practice should spend more time in community outreach to dispel health care myths and spread correct information. With that jumpstart, Bell returned to his hotel room and immediately wrote out 25 health tips geared to an African-American audience. 

Bell now spreads his health tips through an e-newsletter, radio and TV spots, social media and personal appearances. Many myths, he said, remain alive and well – for example, that placing green Spanish moss in your shoes will reduce blood pressure. In addition, the memory of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment continues to block trust in the medical profession, he said, adding that’s another reason it’s so important to increase the number of African-American health care workers.

Bell credited MUSC for working to increase the number of minority health care providers and to decrease disparities, saying the university was a major partner in getting Closing the Gap in Health Care and his scholarship program started.

“I’m a proud graduate of MUSC. My school had a checkered past when it comes to discrimination and health disparities, but I’m happy to say it’s made a complete reversal,” he said. 

The recent ribbon-cutting for the Thaddeus J. Bell, M.D. Family Health Center was just the latest in a long line of awards and honors that Bell has received, but he was happy to see it and for his grandchildren to see it, though two of his children did not. His son died in 1992 from a massive blood clot and a daughter died in 2015 from cancer. 

“I’ve had my clouds, but this was one of the rainbows in my clouds,” he said.