CLEVELAND - The need for African-American organ donors, especially of kidneys, has always been critical and Dr. Charles Modlin, Jr., has taken his message to the streets.
Dr. Modlin, one of only 15 African-American organ transplant surgeons in the country and the only one in the Midwest, has also taken his message to churches, nonprofit organizations, and the local branch of the NAACP, as well as the halls of Congress.
Along with being one of the leading advocates for organ donations, the urologist and surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation is the co-founder of one of the first health centers that targets health issues of minority men.
"I receive a lot of invitations to speak at churches and I try not to turn down a one of them," Dr. Modlin said last week in the InterContinental Hotel on the Cleveland Clinic campus. "I just came back from Washington where I've been working with the Congressional Black Caucus about a lot of these issues involving health- care disparities."
The disparities between minorities and whites, especially between African-Americans and whites, are stark in numerous categories. Blacks are more likely to get cancer and die from the disease than any other racial and ethnic group, according to www.HealthyAmericans.org. April is minority health month.
Diabetes is 70 percent higher among African-Americans and twice as high among Latinos than of whites. Blacks are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease and 180 percent more likely to die from a stroke than whites, Dr. Modlin said.
In his field of organ transplants, he said African-Americans make up one-third of people on waiting list for organ donations, but make up 12 percent of those donating organs.
Matching African-American patients with African-American donors, who tend to have similar blood types and other genetic features, is crucial to limiting the chance of a transplanted organ being rejected, Dr. Modlin said.
Because of the lack of donors, African-Americans stay on organ donor waiting lists longer and die more often than whites.
Dr. Modlin said he hopes his one-on-one contact and his community involvement can help make a difference in reaching someone who needs to change lifestyle habits or to have a successful surgery.
Cheryl Boyce, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health in Columbus, used a line from Rudyard Kipling's poem If to describe Dr. Modlin's activism as "walking among kings and keeping the common touch."
"He's out in the community and he has no problem communicating with anyone," Ms. Boyce said. "It truly is a rarity. A lot of people rest on their laurels and stay in the ivory tower. He certainly doesn't do that."
Dr. Modlin said he only has to look as far as his parents to see how the disparities can attack a family.
His mother, Grace Modlin, died of diabetes and kidney failure in 2003. His father, Charles Modlin, Sr., has survived prostate cancer.
"My personal experiences and life experiences growing up led me to become a doctor," Dr. Modlin said. "[My parents] never told me I had to be a doctor and never guided me in any direction, but I knew there were expectations of me and I was expected to reach those expectations."
Those expectations took him to Northwestern University, where he earned his bachelor's degree from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 1983 and his doctor of medical degree from the Feinberg School of Medicine in 1987.
In 2003, he was honored by the university's alumni association for helping shape the field the medicine.
His wife, Sheryl, is a pediatric anesthesiologist at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.
People who have come in contact with him, including Dr. Robert Kay, the Cleveland Clinic's chief of staff, call Dr. Modlin a real role model for the kind of outreach hospitals need to do in their communities.
"He has done an excellent job in making the clinic a part of the community and making the community a part of the clinic," Dr. Kay said.
Myra Burks-Davis, of the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network, an organ procurement organization, said Dr. Modlin has helped turn more African-Americans and youths on to organ donations and then becoming doctors.
She said Dr. Modlin joined many of the other African-American organ transplant doctors in a historic gathering in 2004 to talk to teenagers about careers in medicine and the importance of organ donation.
"There's still is a great deal of mistrust in the minority community about organ donations," Ms. Burks-Davis said. "Public education and getting people to talk about it is very important. It's the reason why people like Dr. Modlin speaking out is critical. He and other doctors provide an intellectual healing for the community."
The New Castle, Ind., native is a mixture of new-world knowledge and skill and old-school, door-to-door, get-to-know-your-neighbor kind of physician.
That mixture was part of the idea behind the Minority Men's Health Center, created in June inside the Glickman Urological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, where Dr. Modlin's office is located.
The center takes any patient, regardless of insurance status.
He said he expects several hundred to attend a minority men's health fair at the Cleveland Clinic's Crile Building on Wednesday.
"My dad used to always tell me that nobody cares about black patients," Dr. Modlin said. "There is a perception in the African-American community that this is true. Many of the men we see have never been in our facility before. We screen them from head to toe and we work with them from there."
Charles Modlin, Sr., quit school in his junior year to join the Navy.
He worked in a factory for many years after completing his service duty.
His mother returned to college to earn a degree in education to teach elementary school.
Mr. Modlin, Sr., joined the New Castle Chrysler High School graduating Class of 2003 when he finally received his high school diploma after a state statute made him eligible to receive it.
"He's always been a role model of mine," Dr. Modlin said. "I watched his work ethic over the years and he's been an inspiration. He's been a community activist and won medals in the Senior Olympics running track and field."
It was his mother who dragged Dr. Modlin to college classes with her when he was 6 while she earned her degree.
Dr. Modlin said he grew up with the idea of not if he was going to attend college, but that he was supposed to.
Dr. Modlin said education is one of the big keys to dispelling myths about organ transplants and treatments to help close the health disparity gaps for minorities.
The Rev. Marvin McMickle, Cleveland community activist, said that Dr. Modlin not only educates and inspires those in the minority communities, but his work challenges other doctors to rise to his level of community activism.
"I never talked about this to him, but he has a doctor's heart in the very best sense of the word," said Mr. McMickle, former president of the Cleveland branch of the NAACP. "He believes medicine should be for the good of others, and not for the profit of the physicians, and he does it with a missionary's zeal.
"He doesn't sit around waiting for people to come to him. He's very passionate about what he does."
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