Over the summer I had the pleasure of reading several great works of non-fiction. Just a few days ago I finished Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home, by Samson Davis. I read an earlier book of his, The Pact, in which he collaborated with George Jenkins and and Rameck Hunt. The special relationship he had with two other young men, from the same rough Newark, New Jersey is detailed. They made a promise to each other that they would get through college together – and eventually become doctors. I read this book when it first came out, amazed at their combined dedication – to each other, and their goal. This latest memoir catches him about ten years later, with many years of E.R. experience under his belt.
In this book, Samson returns to the hospital his was born in, after completing med school – Beth Israel in Newark, NJ – Brick City, his city. The book follows him in his experience there, not necessarily chronologically, as he tackles separate subjects in each chapter. What makes his time there even more remarkable is the ongoing trend of college-educated professionals leaving Newark. He made the decision to stay, and has been a pillar of the community. In an interview with NPR, he describes the decision he made to come back. The interview is worth a listen, his dedication to his community, to his people, is admirable.
His focus in this book is on some of the most pressing issues plaguing the city and community, followed by resources, gang violence, obesity, heart disease, advanced stage cancer, depression, abuse, STDs, and asthma. These are not the only issues this poor community faces, these are the ones he seems to have the most experience with. He describes the heartbreaking loss of his sister to AIDS, which seemed to strengthen his resolve. The cultural implications of these issues are also explored. An example of this is the stigma he describes or using condoms, which of course leads to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and STDs. He also uses the example of a prevalence of fear and mistrust of doctors and hospitals within the African American community. At the end of each chapter, he lists many resources so that people needing help for themselves or loved one can find it. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned gesture will probably go unused. Those who would most benefit from this information are probably not the ones picking up this book.
He offers insight to the special challenges his community faces: “Many times I’d found myself explaining to white folks that poverty and crime are not a factor of skin color and that there is nothing about being black or brown that makes a person inherently violent. I’d argued that desperation and hopelessness often make poor people careless about their actions and the consequences. Change the conditions, I’d said, and their lives would change.”
This is a strong statement, and he is speaking from a position of experience. Poverty is at the root of many of the problems he’s attempting to tackle. Outside the hospital, he is involved in numerous charities – some of which are reaching out to the community, attempting to address these pressing needs. One thing stands at the middle of all of his work: education, making information available to those who need it, so that they can take charge of their health and well-being. Another aspect of his focus on education is the work that he’s done in Newark, and in other impoverished and economically disadvantaged areas, is to encourage young people to stay in school. Through public speaking, mentoring, and work throughout the community, he is making a difference. A lot of attention has been paid to Newark in the past year or two. This is just another perspective to add to the conversation on how to help.