Film tells story of Kansas City's once segregated hospitals

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | 6:37 p.m. CDT; updated 6:57 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 13, 2011

KANSAS CITY — Black doctors once posed as janitors to train at Kansas City's whites-only hospital. And black nurses sometimes used an underground tunnel to discreetly transport their sickest patients into the better-equipped white hospital next door.

Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott tells their stories in a new documentary, "From Separate to Equal: The Creation of Truman Medical Centers." He has examined racial division in the past and perhaps is best known for his Sundance Film Festival entry, "CSA: The Confederate States of America." The faux documentary examines the racist nation that might have resulted had the South won the Civil War.

Willmott, a professor at the University of Kansas, stumbled upon the subject of his latest film when he came across a timeline of Kansas City and health care in the area while touring Truman Medical Centers.

Until 1957, Kansas City operated General Hospital No. 1 for whites and General Hospital No. 2 for minorities.

"There was no double speak," he said. "Today you can laugh at it because it's so absurd and crazy."

The two-tiered hospital system grew costly to operate, and General Hospital No. 1 and 2 merged. In the 1970s, Truman Medical Centers opened to serve the city's neediest and as a training ground for medical students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Willmott remarked the story needed telling. Truman chipped in the money, though it isn't saying how much.

Truman's CEO and president, John W. Bluford, a black man raised in the South, said he wants people to know the blame for health care disparities doesn't rest solely on the backs of minorities.

"Instead, they are explained in the systematic disregard for many segments of our community," he said in a news release.

The film tells of a wounded black man who jumped from a moving ambulance because he feared going to the hospital. Willmott said blacks were terrified that they would be the subjects of medical experiments as they sometimes were during the days of slavery. The unequal health care didn't help.

The film also talks of nurses having to jerry-rig incubators for premature black babies by hanging light bulbs over their basinets and using blankets to trap the heat. Once, a nurse says in the film, a blanket caught on fire.

But even this was better than the time before black hospitals, when minorities often went untreated. Willmott said that the hospitals created to care for minorities provided a place for black doctors and nurses to train during a time when they were blocked from working in white hospitals. In turn, those professionals provided role models for black youth.

The hour-long film is being aired on Kansas City Public Television and in public showings around Kansas City. The hospital is inviting staff, city leaders and lawmakers to watch.

"In the end, it tells the story of what safety-net hospitals do," Shane Kovac, a spokesman for Truman, said. "Many have closed over the years due to financial reasons. We do play a huge role in any community."

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