The Warmth of Other Suns

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The following is an excerpt from the book "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson. An interview with the author by Dr. Harris accompanies this piece.

For a time, Madison was the only colored physician in all of Ouchita County, Louisiana, after a doctor by the name of Chandler died. Years before, two colored doctors had been forced out of Monroe, the author Ray Stannard Baker reported, "because they were taking the practice of white physicians."


So Madison learned to step judiciously in his practice. He tended to the students at a colored college out from town and the poor people out in the country where the white doctors would not go. The country people paid him with the side of a freshly killed hog until they could get the money, which some never did. When Madison's patients needed to go to the hospital, Madison could not admit them. He was not allowed in the hospital to practice. So he carried a hospital in his medicine bag and made the front room of every shotgun cabin an operating room.

Madison had his hand's full, and he enlisted Pershing's help with his patients out in the countryside when Pershing was on break from his residency. Pershing was glad to help. But he did not want to be a country doctor. And he was thinking even then that he would have to get out of Monroe to be the doctor and the man he knew he could be. He wanted the shiny fixtures of a modern hospital and a staff of nurses at his side that he could direct like an orchestra.

Pershing was visiting once when someone sent him to deliver a baby out in the country. He arrived with his satchel. Someone met him at the door.

"Doc, I think she's ready."

The fireplace was spitting ashes. The woman's kinfolk stood drinking strong coffee and waiting for the woman to pass the baby.

Pershing saw her splayed flat on a cot, looking ready to burst. He set down his satchel  and went over to her. He reviewed in his head the principles of the obstetrics course he had only recently completed. There was no point in pining for the trappings of a modern hospital  or the equipment he was used to in medical school. He would have to make do with whatever was in the cabin and his medical bag.  They would get through it somehow.

He reached toward her and felt for the hard surface of a human head at the beginning of life. The woman bore down and grunted. He in turn made note of the contractions and the baby's position. He tried to help her bear down. But the baby didn't come.

The woman had been through more births than Pershing had and could sense the tentative touch of a book-learned delivery. All this analysis, and still no baby.

"That's alright, Doc," she finally said. "Get on out the way."

She warmed her round body off the edge of the cot. She grunted and squatted on the bare surface of the floor and pushed hard. Pershing watched and did as she said.

"Come on now," she said. "Catch it."

He moved into position. A few grunts more, and the baby plopped into his hands. Shoop, bingo.

The woman paid what she could, which in the usual currency was not much more than food and a promise but was beyond calculating when it came to wisdom. He learned that all the book knowledge and equipment in the world didn't make you a good doctor if you didn't know what you were doing or listen to your patients.  He learned a lesson that night that would stay with him for the rest of his life and pay off in ways he couldn't imagine.

From the Book, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson. Copyright © 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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