Louis W. Sullivan’s morning walks have always been about two things: building connections and health. Dr. Sullivan’s early morning walks with his wife Ginger started in the early 1970s.
“We started it as an effort for weight reduction, and we found that we loved it,” Dr. Sullivan said at his Hart Haven home in Oak Bluffs this week. “We found it was a time we could talk about things — financial, the children, plans — this was our time to do it.”
When Dr. Sullivan became secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human services under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, he brought his walks to Washington, D.C.
Dr. Sullivan was an internist, hematologist, tenured professor and founder of the Morehouse School of Medicine. But he was new to Washington. “This was my first time in public service,” he said. “One of the things I had to figure out was . . . . How do I establish a relationship with the people in the department? I decided that since I walked, I would invite the members of the department who wanted to join me for my morning walk.”
There were 10 regional offices in the country. When Dr. Sullivan was in the area, he’d notify the office of the time and location of the walk. Anywhere between 20 to 150 people would come.
“When I met these people they’d say, ‘I’ve been in the department for 25 years and you’re the first secretary I’ve ever gotten to meet in person,’” he said. “It served to help me because I knew the people in the department knew the issues a lot better than I did. Secondly, it helped to establish a good relationship. We built a team so they would be working with me rather than against me.”
That first summer Dr. Sullivan brought his walks to the Vineyard, too. A longtime seasonal resident, he had 25 T-shirts created which read 5K for Health and Fitness. For the first walk, 57 people showed up. It began at Waban Park and traveled down Sea View avenue. This Saturday he will participate in the 25th annual Louis Sullivan 5K Race/Run. The proceeds of the run benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. “Before the walk I really take a few minutes to talk about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, not only exercise but diet and not smoking and avoiding drug use and vaccinations for children,” Dr. Sullivan said. “I use it as an opportunity to talk about the role each individual can play in really protecting their own health.”
What began as 57 participants has grown into a nationally registered 5K race around East Chop, and Dr. Sullivan said the growth of the race reflects the increased interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“Twenty years ago this would have been considered a feel-good activity,” Dr. Sullivan said. “There is now a solid body of science and medical body of work that shows this has a health benefit.”
Dr. Sullivan urges runners and walkers to take a 5K back to their home communities off-Island.
“The whole idea is to really try to improve the health habits in the country because we’ve done a lot of things over the last 30 years that are not good,” he said, including cutting back on physical education programs and more time spent in front of the television rather than playing sports.
“This is an effort to try and change that dynamic really for health reasons, but also for economic reasons,” he said. “And it’s fun.”
Dr. Sullivan said a positive sign of recent change is the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive health care bill passed by Congress in 2010 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
“It’s not perfect, it’s a complex bill,” he admitted. “But we spent $2.4 trillion in 2010 on the health care system. There’s no such thing as one bill that’s going to address all of these issues without complication.”
When Dr. Sullivan arrived in Washington in 1989, the country was spending $1 trillion on health care, he said. “We have to get this under control. At the same time I emphasize the fact that there are a number of preventable things — a healthy lifestyle is only one — where we need to use the health system more efficiently and effectively.” Fewer visits to the emergency room and “every time you have a sniffle doesn’t mean there’s an antibiotic that you should be having” are examples of this, he said.
Dr. Sullivan is currently chairman of the National Health Museum, and he is also helping the African country of Liberia set up their own medical school.
“We have reached the age now in the development of our system that for it to work the way it should, the people have to participate more actively,” he said. “We have to change the culture of the system.”
One system he feels needs to be changed is the finances of medical school, which directly correlates to the shortage of primary care doctors here on the Vineyard and across the country.
“We have a system that has a problem. Students graduate with debts of $100,000 to $200,000,” he said. “I graduated from medical school in 1958 owing $500. I had the complete freedom to decide what I wanted to do.”
“But today students have to think about how am I going to pay this debt off? That’s a driver into specialties that keeps them living and working in affluent communities and not going into poor communities.”
More scholarships are one way to begin to fix the problem, he said.
“We need to look upon providing scholarship support or other ways to support a student as an investment in our society,” he said. “Yes, you’re investing in an individual but that individual is going to be providing for the entire society.”
Dr. Sullivan understands the benefits of long term investment on a tangible level. In October of 1989 he approved federal reimbursement for the first HIV/AIDS drug, azidothymidine, better known as AZT.
“We don’t have a cure yet, but in the course of 20 years we’ve gone from a desperate life-threatening illness to one that is now controllable. That is a return on investment in science.”
There are good things about the America health care system, Dr. Sullivan added. Scientifically, America is the most innovative, he said, and more Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology have been given to American scientists during the 20th century than the rest of the world combined.
On a more local level, Dr. Sullivan said the Affordable Care Act will benefit the Island community and enhance an already growing system.
“The quality of physicians here is quite good,” he said. “At the same time, there really is a surprising amount of poverty here . . . I see the Affordable Care Act being good for Martha’s Vineyard. I see a better health system with the hospital and the physicians that you have here and the network with Massachusetts General Hospital, so all of that I see as positive.”
But back to the 25th Louis Sullivan Race/Walk.
“My goal is just to finish,” Dr. Sullivan laughed. “The first race I came in third. The next year I came in ninth. Now it’s 25 years later and I usually come in towards the end. I think the races have become faster and I’ve become slower, but I enjoy it just as much.”
“I further enjoy it as someone who comes here during the summer and contributes to the Island in more ways than simply coming as a summer resident. So I feel good about that.”
The 25th Annual Louis Sullivan 5K Run/Walk is Saturday beginning at Washington Park and travels along East Chop Drive and back. Registration is from 3 to 6 p.m. at the hospital main lobby on Friday, or from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. on Saturday at Washington Park. The kids fun run starts at 8:45 a.m.; walkers start at 9 a.m. and runners begin at 9:30 a.m. All runners and walkers are welcome.