By Carolyn Bick
When Marva Harris first adopted grandson Jeremiah in 2013, the then-infant’s tiny body was covered in eczema from head to toe. While a United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that it’s increasingly more common for Black children to suffer from the skin disease, Jeremiah was “in pretty bad shape.”
“All of my children had it, but … Jeremiah had it all over his face, all over his body,” Harris recalled. “When I ended up getting him from [Child Protective Services], I took him down there to Dr. Bell and she gave me a lot of medication and stuff for him, and it finally went away. I was pretty persistent in following what she told me to do for him.”
Thanks Dr. Shaquita Bell, Harris’ grandsons’ primary care physician at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic on East Yesler Way, the now-six-year-old boy is thriving both at home and at school.
The clinic is a community clinic of Seattle Children’s Hospital, and provides medical, mental health, dental, and nutrition services, as well as family advocacy and culturally relevant mentoring and education. Because demand for its services is increasing, Seattle Children’s recently announced it would be opening a second Odessa Brown clinic in the Rainier Valley area in 2020. Located near the Othello Light Rail station, the 35,000-square-foot clinic will be part of a 3.2-acre concept space, called Othello Square, which will include a charter high school, an economic opportunity center, a computer lab, commercial space at prices affordable for the surrounding community, and mixed-income housing for rent and ownership.
Bell has been working at the clinic for the past 13 years as a pediatrician. She also serves as the clinic’s resident coordinator and foster and kinship care coordinator. Originally starting at the clinic as a resident herself, Bell “begged” to stay at the clinic, after graduating from her medical program, because the community she served there so closely mirrored the Minnesotan community in which she grew up.
“It’s really important for me to give back and to work with the folks that I know and that I love and that I come from, and see myself reflected in my patients and families,” Bell said of her desire to stay at the clinic. “I work here, because we don’t limit people’s access to care based on their insurance, for instance. We can take care of anybody, and as a pediatrician, I don’t have to even pay attention to what their insurance is. We can see them, no matter what.”
Named for Odessa Brown, a Black activist who fought to bring quality healthcare to children in the then-heavily Black Central District, during the Civil Rights era, the Odessa Brown Clinic first opened its doors in 1970, a year after Brown herself died of leukemia.
Now, almost 50 years later, the clinic has grown from just one doctor to a staff of 80.
Harris adopted her two grandsons, Jeremiah and Jonah, in 2013 and 2014, respectively, but has been taking the pair to the clinic since they were tiny –– Jeremiah since infancy, and Jonah since age two. Though Harris has been living in Beacon Hill for 32 years, she never frequented the clinic herself, or took any other family members to it, before she started taking her grandsons. She said she can’t remember why she decided to take her grandsons there, but she’s glad she did.
“They treat us like family. When we go in, Dr. Bell, she takes care of the kids, and she asks about me, how I am doing –– how things are going, and if I need any help,” Harris said in a phone interview. “I am almost 65 years old, and I am taking care of a six-year-old and a 15-year-old.”
For the 15-year-old Jonah, the clinic also serves as a home base for his mental health treatment. Jonah has receptive language disorder, a communication disorder in which a person has difficulties understanding and processing what other people say to them.
Thanks to the clinic, Harris doesn’t have to worry about taking Jonah to a different healthcare facility to take care of his mental health needs. Harris said Bell connected Harris with a speech and language therapist to assess Jonah, and helped get an individual education plan (IEP) in place for the 15-year-old.
“Jonah is in high school now, and he is carrying in a 3.4 [grade point average] right now, so he does really well with the assistance and services and stuff that he has right now,” Harris said. “He has a couple, two or three colleges he wants to go to. Kansas University, the University of Washington. He said Duke, but I am hoping he will get that out of his head.”
Harris said she is glad Children’s is putting another clinic in further south. In the three decades she’s lived in the area, she’s seen more and more people pushed out of their homes, because they can’t afford to live in Seattle anymore. But she said the only way she would be switching clinics is if Bell switches clinics, too.
“If Dr. Bell doesn’t go there, my kids are going to stay where they are. If I lived in Bremerton, I would take my kids to Odessa Brown and Dr. Bell,” Harris said with a rich laugh. “She’s what every patient needs –– that kind of doctor.”