Dr. Louis Sullivan walks the walk

The former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services will lead his annual fundraising run/walk on Saturday.

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Dr. Louis Sullivan at his home on Farm Pond Road in Oak Bluffs. Sam Moore

At age 82, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan presents a worldview defined by compassion, and Island health is better for it. One doesn’t have to look further than the 28th annual Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Sullivan 5K Run/Walk Dr. Sullivan will lead on Saturday in Oak Bluffs.

Considering the precipitous road he encountered along the way to national and international medical caregiving success, his choice of life perspective is unusual in a world where success is often marked by self-satisfaction and outsize ego.

Dr. Sullivan’s résumé provides ample ammunition for self-puffery — a state of mind curiously lacking in the man. He was raised in rural Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s. It was illegal at the time for African-Americans to be admitted to medical schools. Young Louis Sullivan had seen black country doctors travel 50 miles to treat African-American patients, and he resolved to become a doctor, and to help. By 1954, he had graduated college and was finally able to entroll in medical school, and began his studies at Boston University. Twenty-one years later, he would found the Morehouse [University] School of Medicine, and went on to become the nation’s Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 1989 to 1992.

“We were raised in my family to believe in the American Dream — that hard work would result in achieving your goals,” he said last Saturday morning in an hour-long conversation that coursed through a variety of topics, and included infrequent but pithy perspective from Ginger, his wife of 61 years.

In conversation, Dr. Sullivan shows up as a man who identifies the future health value in any project in front of him. He has shown the skill to lead, to network, and to grow leaders for health-producing projects from here to Zimbabwe.

In our case, Dr. Sullivan will preside at the 28th annual running of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Sullivan 5K Run/Walk race to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH), an event he began in 1989 as an organized walk, and which started benefitting the hospital with the 1991 event; it has raised about a half-million dollars for health services at MVH. The Sullivan 5K was not his first organized walking event, but grew out of his experience at HHS.

“Ginger and I began a daily walking regimen 35 years ago for health and weight control and as a time to talk about our lives and children. When I went to HHS, I invited staffers to join us in Washington and at regional offices when I was visiting. I told them that I wasn’t a politician and I needed their help. They were terrific, and they did help me,“ he said.

Dr. Sullivan told summer resident Carol Dargan about the HHS morning routine, and she asked him, “Why don’t you start one here?” So he did, and the beneficial history began.

It is noteworthy that in the third Sullivan 5K race, MVH volunteers just showed up, dispensing orange juice and water to the runners — a compassionate act that Dr. Sullivan noticed and that led him to dedicate race proceeds to the little hospital.

At the time, our Island had been “discovered,” and its hospital was facing a demand on services that stressed its staff and resources. The Sullivan 5K Run/Walk check was welcome.

Then there’s the networking part. Dr. Sullivan’s highly visible career has established relationships with national and international companies, such as Cigna and Squibb, who have become race sponsors. “We raise $60,000 to $70,000 a year from the race, mostly from sponsorships. Registration income covers our costs,” he said.

Dr. Sullivan said he sees the current graying of America, and Martha’s Vineyard, as a watershed moment, and he believes that telemedicine will be a boon to rural and island communities nationwide. “The hospital’s affiliation with Massachusetts General Hospital provides the resources for tests such as CAT scans and MRIs to be analyzed quickly, for example,” he said about telemedicine techniques now in use at MVH.

Beyond Island shores and his local event, Dr. Sullivan is working to bring healthcare services to small and rural communities without access to hospitals or to a substantial medical community.“I think we have an opportunity to expand the role of physician assistants and nurse practitioners in rural areas where doctors aren’t available,” he said. “I think that role can be expanded to other medical fields, including dentistry. I’m working on a dentistry project in Alaska using similar kinds of medical professionals.”

Asked about the recent resurfacing of racial tension in America, Dr. Sullivan — a participant in the 1963 March on Washington, a critical moment in the civil rights movement — said the current phenomenon disappoints him. “Overall, we are far from perfect, but I thought we were making progress. Events this year have caused me to ask whether it’s [been] just a veneer, with hatred and discrimination underneath the surface, contrary to the values we espouse in our country,” he said.

“People are susceptible to that virus, from Roxbury to West Virginia, and once you have the virus, it’s hard to combat. We, my generation, are the elders now. We have to help show the way,” he said.

The Sullivan 5K Run/Walk begins at Washington Park, opposite Our Market in Oak Bluffs and includes four divisions with staggered start times: Diaper Derby (8:30 am), Kids’ Fun Run (8:45 am), Walkers (9 am), and Runners (9:30 am). The U.S. Track and Field Association–certified course goes around the East Chop bluffs, and features awards for top finishers among runners and walkers in nine age categories. Registration ($20 preregistration, $25 day of race registration) and additional race information are available at the MVH Development Office (bit.ly/DrWalks).