V.I. Cancer Surgeon Taking Free Health Care to the Streets of Harlem

Dec. 22, 2008 — Think of a Harlem barbershop and you probably picture clippers buzzing over men as they talk sports or politics. What doesn't leap to mind are prostate exams, heart disease tests and blood drawn to determine HIV/AIDS status.
But thanks to a Virgin Islander's dedication, thousands of New Yorkers in Harlem's traditionally black neighborhoods have received free cancer screenings and preventative check ups they likely would otherwise not seek, or could not afford.
St. Thomas-native Bert Petersen — a prominent New York cancer surgeon who lives near Harlem — started taking cancer screening to the barbershops in summer 2007. Working with the health ministry at his church, Petersen created a mobile clinic. The van has a laboratory for blood work and a private examination room. He used connections at various hospitals to get nurses' time donated to the free mobile clinic.
"My fundamental principle when it comes to health care is, we have to do a better job of leaving the mountain top and going to where the people are," Petersen said.
He named the program the Barbershop Quartet, because it initially tested for four things: colon cancer, prostate cancer, hypertension and diabetes. HIV/AIDS tests have since been added, but Barbershop Quintet doesn't have the same ring, he said.
Unlike other free initiatives that only seek to educate people about health issues, the Barbershop Quartet's nurses and physicians interview patients, perform rectal exams and draw blood. Men go in the van, go get their hair cut, and get most test results by the time they leave the barbershop.
But would men accustomed to spending the day talking about football really go for rectal exams at their Saturday hangout spot?
Petersen said the key was getting the barbers to go first. After that, the free, weekend program became an overwhelming success with barbershop customers.
Men are often reluctant to go to a doctor's office, even those with health insurance, because it means taking time off work, Petersen said.
"The working poor, that's what I call them. If they take time off to go to the doctor, they may lose that pay. And many of these services are not offered on the weekend," he said. "It's a lot easier if you just go to them."
During summer months, 40 or 50 men line up for the Saturday screenings. Women are not turned away, but the program specializes in men's issues. Hot spots for the van are near the mosque on Malcolm X Boulevard, the "Little Africa" district on 116th Street, and outside just about every barbershop in uptown Manhattan, Petersen said.
One barbershop even took the lead in promoting the free screenings, staying open 48-hour in a "Cutting for the Cure" campaign. The shop is trying to organize the event into a nation-wide campaign.
"Really, we made the men comfortable," he said. "It was amazing to see how many men showed up."
Medical institutions are taking notice as well.
Both the NYU and Cornell medical schools are interested in the project, especially because of its success.
"They are fascinated that I've actually had men showing up," said Petersen, who is awaiting word on three grants totaling $1.3 million to help continue the program. "The next phase is to take the data we've gathered so far and propose another grant."
As the Barbershop Quartet grows in New York, he hopes similar programs will sprout up in the Virgin Islands, where the idea first took root.
"I got a lot of my early dental work from a mobile van," said Petersen, a product of the St. Thomas public schools now called the Joseph Gomez Elementary School and the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. He credits his success to his teachers, who continually challenged him with unique assignments not on the normal curriculum.
Petersen left the Virgin Islands at 17 to attend John Hopkins University and John Hopkins School of Medicine, but spiritually, he never truly left the territory. He's in every Carnival parade and spends much of his off time on island.
Petersen has met with V.I. government officials with hopes of spurring a similar cancer screening program in the territory. He envisions a Barbershop Quartet-type van outside HOVENSA or Emancipation Garden or anywhere people can reach easily.
He warns against waiting for governments to take action, however, and hopes health crusaders will take charge.
"We look to the government as the source to do everything for the people," Petersen said. "But I think that the community can come together to solve some of the issues we are having in the community."
The University of the West Indies will present Petersen with its Vice Chancellor Achievement Award in January for his work ending healthcare disparities globally, especially among people of African decent.
On the African continent, Petersen has met with government health ministries in Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia, urging them to spend more on healthcare and set up preventative treatment and screening measures, especially for cancer.
"They may not have any perceived signs of symptoms until they're well on their way to having the disease," he said. "If everyone got checked, we could eliminate colon cancer."
The World Health Organization recently warned cancer would soon surpass heart disease as the world's number one killer.
"We spend a lot of time thinking about communicable diseases because they are easy to treat," he said. "Cancer is a very, very expensive program to cure."
Early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to beat cancer, said Petersen, who is trying to make free annual check ups no harder to get than a shave and a hair cut.

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