Karl Hammonds' mother wanted to be a nurse. But Mary Bell Hammonds grew up in Montgomery, Ala., at a time when, as her son puts it, "if you weren't rich enough or light enough, you could just hang it up." So instead she took a job in an office and sometimes would bring her young son to work with her.
Hammonds passed the time by looking at an anatomy textbook kept on an office shelf, and somewhere along the line got interested in becoming a doctor. oPrinceton and Howard University medical school graduate, who now lives in Takoma Park, is beginning to see some dreams come true. He is a pediatrician on the staff of Hadley Memorial Hospital in Southwest Washington and is determined to make a difference in the type of health care blacks in the Washington area receive.
For the past year, he has been the host of a health-oriented radio program, "Focus on Your Health," broadcast weekly on WGAY radio. He was the driving force behind the Upper Cardozo Health Festival in April. And he helped to coordinate the recent conference on the changing roles of fathers in modern society sponsored by the Men's Center of Planned Parenthood of Washington.
His involvement in these projects stems from a belief that blacks are in need of more health education including preventive medicine, prenatal care and proper nutrition.
Hammonds' expression is intense as he explains this thinking.
"My concept is one of wellness rather than sickness," he says. "The way medicine usually works is that you wait for something to happen and then you jump in. But most people are well . . . the people we see in hospitals don't represent the general population. So what you really need is to help people who are already well to stay that way,"
Hammonds says that his main themes are prevention, getting the best medical care for the money and avoiding health hazards. And, he adds, he intends to get into the community and discuss these concepts "at every possible turn."
"Most of the big problems black folk have are usually preventable. But I have noticed two things with regard to our medical problems. As blacks, we tend to get the kinds of things that can kill you, and we also tend to get the same things over and over and over again."
He points to illnesses such as hypertension, alcoholism and heart disease as examples, and notes that factors such as diet, occupation, stress levels, discrimination and racism often contribute to the high incidence of these problems among blacks.
It is in the Washington area, where many blacks have a combination of health and other problems, that Hammonds says he has found his greatest challenge as a physician. His patients come not only from the District, but also from parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties as well, and often he is called upon not only to treat his patients, but also to educate them.
His Maryland patients, he notes, have many of the same problems and concerns as those who live in the District.
"The similarities exist because both populations are coming from urban areas," he says. "Environment and climate have a lot to do with the kinds of illnesses children get, and all of my patients' problems are different from people living in rural Maryland or on, the Eastern Shore."
That they come into the District from the Maryland suburbs is no surprise to the young doctor, who believes people are willing to "comparison shop" in order to find good health care.
"People in Maryland and everywhere else have this in common: they are looking for personalized, high-quality, individualized care. They want to feel that the doctor has time for them," says Hammonds. "It isn't the fancy machines or advanced techniques they remember, but if you take the time to talk to them, to tell them that they can call you any time they have questions -- that's something they'll remember again and again.
"In this line of work, I often get two patients for one.The 16-year-old mother will come in with her three young children. Well, I am a pediatrician and I see people up to the age of 21. So I end up treating the entire family. But that's good. Maternal and child health care and family medicine really are at the core of everything."
Hammonds says that he is disturbed by the things he sees happening to black families in the Washington area.
"The family is the basic institution, but so many black families are fragmented here. When something happens to the father, everyone in the family is affected.
"When I first came here, I thought, 'Hey, where are all the dudes?' Then I realize that many of them were dead, in prison or unemployed, and that this is one of a group of frustrations black people have to deal with here. It's realy very sad."
Hammonds was in his 20s before he met a black doctor.
He then was an undergraduate at Princeton, where he had gone on full scholoarship. He had wanted to go to college, but his father advised him it was more realistic to get a trade. While loading and unloading trucks for a moving company the summer after graduating from high school, he met a white engineer. The engineer, a Princeton alumnus who took a liking to Hammonds, helped him fill out an application and offered advice.
And it was at Princeton that he met a black doctor.
"I had never met a black physician face-to-face," he recalls excitedly, "and I was floored. Here was someone who ate what I ate, drank what I drank, talked like me and looked like me. And I said OK. I was going to be what my people needed most."
He chose Howard because, "after four years at Princeton, I needed to be with some black folks," and after finishing medical school three years ago, decided to stay in Washington because he felt he could do the most good there.
His long-term goals are ambitious. "I'd like to teach health care to both medical students and community residents. I'm talking about quality care which will withstand the scrutiny of anyone. I'd also like to do some regional planning with regard to material and child health care, and ultimately, I'd like to build a large, high quality medical center where the best doctors are trained and blacks can get the very best health services."
He believes this is something blacks are not getting today, and that there should be not only more health care, but also that it should be more readily available.
Hammonds would like to dedicate that facility to his father, James Hammonds Jr., a retired Army officer whom he describes as "just an ordinary, down-to-earth black man, who is very special to me. But he's the kind of man you don't hear about because society only wants to know about black men when they're involved in something negative. I am going to make sure that he gets what he deserves."
Hammonds and his African-born wife Lady Marie, a registered nurse from Monrovia, Liberia, and son Karl, from a previous marriage, moved to the nearby Maryland suburb because they could not find a suitable place to rent in the District. "Nobody wants to rent to anyone with kids," he says sadly. "I think that's a very good indication of what some of Washington's problems are." He added that he and his wife, like many young families, "just aren't ready to buy -- we can't afford it, yet."
Although he and his family are comfortable in the suburbs and, as he puts it, "so close in that we don't miss anything," the inability of many middle-class blacks to find suitable housing in the District bothers him.
"When the people with better incomes have to move out so does the tax base and the whole range of human services which are essential to a city. Not just health care, but education, social services, everything. And that's bad. You also lose a lot of the charm and character of a place when one group of people can no longer afford to live there. So the black exodus we are seeing these days is a cause of concern to me."
But his major concern is his family life, and Hammonds says that he is going to make sure that his 5-year-old son "does not have to go through any of the things that I went through. I want to expose him to everything; the arts, music, sports. And when he's ready, I want him to know that none of his dreams are impossible."