Dr. Waters served Sixteenth Street patients for 34 years. During his tenure, he not only became a recognized pediatrician, but was also well known for his achievements in the community. From witnessing a "miracle" to establishing Bike Day — we were lucky to have a community health advocate like him working here. Please join us in wishing Dr. Waters a happy retirement!
What drew you to work in public health and to Sixteenth Street in particular?
I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was three years old, and I have no idea what that was based on or where that came from. During my training, I had an idea in my head of what I wanted to do, that I wanted to work in some community, specifically a neighborhood clinic where I could be involved in the health of that community. I did my residency in Portland, Oregon, where I worked in an inner-city clinic that took care of mostly African American, Laotian, and Vietnamese people. The doctors there, the setting there, was what I had conceived of what I'd wanted to do.
In 1986, I came home, and a friend took me to eat at Mercado El Rey, which used to be directly across from the Chavez site. When I came out of El Rey and looked across the street, I saw the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center. I grew up in Milwaukee and never knew it existed. I literally walked in the front door and asked them who they were and if they needed a pediatrician. Then I came back to interview and learned more about the work they were doing in the community. We took care of patients in the community, went to Children’s Hospital and saw our patients — for me this was the dream job.
I am not a public health person, I'm a community health person. That's where my focus was, looking at the neighborhoods around the clinic and the patients we care for and looking at ways that we can make their lives better and enhance their ability to live well for themselves and their children.
Looking back at the course of your career, and the impact you have made, is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
We've had a lot of great things happen while I was here. We developed a program to teach people in the community about providing health care to Hmong people because there were a lot Hmong people that had just come to Milwaukee after the Vietnam War.
I also worked on an asthma program when we realized we had a lot of asthmatic patients and didn't have a very structured asthma program. I was lucky enough to be part of a group to bring good asthma care to the clinic.
Then I was fortunate enough to be one of people that started Bike Day, which was a great run for many years until, unfortunately, the pandemic closed it down, but it should be coming back in 2022.
Then my last project I was involved in, that I really loved, was we took photographs of twins -- identical and fraternal twins -- that are patients at the clinic. We will be printing those soon, framing, and displaying them around the clinics to highlight the beauty of our patients.
Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?
In over 34 years, there are many, many moments that stand out to me. Picking one is sort of difficult, but I think one that really sticks in my mind that was such a special day.
I took care of a young girl who had something called Campomelic dwarfism. She was very small, and she had scoliosis, and she had never been able to walk.
One day, she showed up to clinic with her grandmother, she was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, and told me: “Dr. Waters, I learned to walk!” Sure enough, we went out into the back parking lot, and she pulled out this walker, and she walked! It was a miracle to watch this girl who everyone was predicting would never be able to walk, was now able to walk. For me, that was witnessing a miracle and it was one of the most special days I can remember.
What do you think other people should know about this organization?
I think people should know that the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers is a remarkable place. It has been here for over 50 years. It has grown exponentially. When I started in 1987, there were 40 employees and six providers. And now we have over 400 employees and over 50 providers. We had just one small site when I first started. Now we have multiple clinics around the community.
The focus and the mission have never changed from the day I walked in. We are here to help people. We are here to help heal people. The staff is dedicated to the patients and their families -- every patient, every day -- trying to get them the best care. To live the best way they can. I've always been impressed with how visionary the clinic is. Anyone from any department can come up with an idea that is going to enhance the care for the patients and their families and people will listen to that idea.
Can you tell me a bit about Bike Day and why it’s such a passion for you?
Bike Day is a remarkable event that we started about 10 years ago. It started with a medical student that worked here named Michael Waters, no relationship to me. He worked in our Healthy Choices program and became very concerned about the amount of obesity he was seeing in our patients. He was also struck by the fact that he would bicycle through the neighborhood and not see very many kids on bikes.
He proposed the idea that if we could get more bikes in the hands of kids in the community, it could help offset -- or at least combat -- the obesity epidemic that was really hitting hard in our community and in our population. It was a simple idea where we would collect bikes, we would tune them up, then we would have an event in a park where we would invite children and their families to come. We also provided education from many different organizations about healthy choices and healthy ways to live.
Over the years it grew, until one year we gave away a thousand bikes to children in the neighborhood. With each child, we gave away a helmet because every child should wear a helmet when they ride a bike. We also gave a lock to every child because bikes get stolen quite frequently in neighborhoods.
It was a very infectious atmosphere for us who were running the event. There's nothing better than seeing a child receive a bike and the smile they have on their face when they realize this bike is going to be theirs. It's been a real beautiful community event that's simple, low budget, but it had a big impact on the community. It became a very well-loved event that I am proud to have been part of starting.
What are your plans for the future?
It’s a work in progress. I turned 65 a month ago. I've been at the clinic 34 years -- over half of my life. I've been at the clinic and being a pediatrician at the clinic is really who I am and what I know. I do have other hobbies and other interests outside of clinic, but it took up the majority of my time and the majority of my energy, and suddenly now to not have that in my life, I'm sort of looking around and trying to figure it out.
I'm just going to try and live well, according to my values and my principles, and try and enjoy myself. Stay fit, stay mentally sharp, and try and experience new things and go to new places -- that's what I'm looking forward to.
Dr. Waters has touched the lives of countless patients. He leaves a legacy that will be felt for years to come.
Thank you for all you've done for our community!