Healing Body and Soul in Alabama’s Black Belt

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While Birmingham is a city with large hospitals and many medical professionals, there are relatively few physicians in Alabama’s Black Belt. It’s an impoverished region already facing high rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer deaths. Dr. Roseanne Cook has made it her mission to provide medical care to residents of Pine Apple, a town of just 130 people in Wilcox County. She also happens to be a Roman Catholic nun.

Cook used to work as a college professor in Missouri. But at age 40 she decided to become a doctor. Another nun recruited her to a medical clinic in Pine Apple nearly 30 years ago. She’s still here, a decade past retirement age.

“Being a physician you are trying to heal and to help people to feel better and to live a better life and to function better in every way,” Cook said. “Being a nun or a sister, part of our main focus in life is to bring the Lord’s healing to folks. They do come together very nicely.”

Cook estimates 60 percent of her patients lack health insurance and 90 percent are at or below the poverty line. The area lacks industry other than a timber company. But Cook sees other reasons for the harsh economy.

“I think a lot stems from poor education and from people not thinking that life can be any better,” Cook said. “I think there is a lack of real willingness to go out and seek other things if it’s not readily available right here where they live.”

Cook usually sees up to 25 patients a week in her clinic. Most suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure. While that may be routine, one incident left her convinced she has divine backing for her work.

Cook was on her way to the clinic in 2011 when she was pistol-whipped, abducted and shot by two men she thought were stranded on a road outside of town.

“They drove me into the woods and knocked me out and threw me in the trunk of the car, then shot five rounds of bullets into the car. And God didn’t want me to die. Imagine that,” Cook said.

Four of five bullets missed her. A fifth grazed her cheek. She eventually clawed her way out of the trunk through the back seat of the car. The robbery only enhanced her faith in God and her commitment to the people of Pine Apple.

Sharon Blackmon, a nurse at the clinic, marvels at Cook’s attitude.

“One of the most wonderful things about working with Dr. Cook is that she has heart for the people and for her patients,” Blackmon said. “She’s very easy to talk to and she takes time to listen to their problems.”

Like many rural areas, Wilcox County is medically underserved. That concerns Cook but she thinks a solution could come in how doctors are selected.

“Medical schools need to be careful in who they admit to medical schools,” Cook said. “Find out if they’re really interested in serving in the communities that they’ve come from, whether they’re willing to go back to rural areas…doing more recruiting of people that are interested in living in areas that are less populated.”

Unless trends change, Dr. Rosanne Cook remains among the few on a mission to the rural poor.

~ Nathan Turner, Jr., November 7, 2013

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager