On a black, rainy night, a honking horn and someone
yelling, “Baby! Baby!” prompted Dr.
Anne Brooks to open the door at the home she shares with
four fellow Roman Catholic nuns in Tutwiler, Miss. A
woman, pregnant with twins and obviously in the throes of
labor, pleaded for help. Brooks sprang into action,
directing her housemates to assist her as she safely
delivered the first baby. The second baby was born in the
ambulance that arrived moments later.
House calls and 12-hour days at Tutwiler Clinic have been
part of Sister Anne Brooks' routine for more than 30
years. At 74, Sister Anne's only concession to her
demanding schedule is a brief nap during her lunch break.
Caring for 8,500 patients a year that live in the
impoverished Mississippi Delta region might seem like
sufficient challenge for a small town's only physician.
But Sister Anne is also responsible for keeping the doors
open. Seventy-four percent of her patients live in
poverty, and have no insurance or money to pay medical
bills. Private donations account for more than 75 percent
of the clinic's current operating funds.
In addition to Sister Anne, the Roman Catholic nuns
serving Tutwiler include a nurse practitioner, a
registered nurse and a licensed counselor who all work in
the clinic, and a community outreach worker who heads
Habitat for Humanity (with 37 homes built and five
“We have found another family here,”
Sister Anne says. “We've been here a long time.
We're all gray-haired now and this community is
After having worked as a teacher first and then returning
to osteopathic medical school to become a physician,
Sister Anne decided to settle in the Mississippi Delta
region because it had some of the nation's highest
poverty rates. She sent query letters to several town
councils. Tutwiler, with no doctor and a boarded-up
medical clinic, responded first. Although council members
later admitted they were extremely skeptical, they agreed
to fix up the clinic.
Tutwiler's residents were desperately poor and primarily
Black. The racial divisions in the town were apparent,
even though it was 1983. Sister Anne immediately removed
the clinic's waiting room partition that separated Black
and White patients. Afterwards, some White patients who
came to the clinic stood in the hallway rather than share
space with Black patients.
Many of her patients lived in tin-roofed shacks. Because
there was no indoor plumbing, impetigo was
common. Unemployment was rampant. Those that worked were
seasonally employed, doing hard physical labor in the
cotton fields, or as household maids making minimal
wages. Sister Anne treated everything from rat bites to
Over the years, Sister Anne has seen some improvements in
lifestyle-related habits—such as getting
workers in the field to wear proper attire when using
chemicals, and getting some patients to eat
healthier—but obesity, diabetes, heart disease
and chronic lifestyle-related conditions like
malnutrition and lung-related diseases continue to be
major medical problems. High rates of tobacco usage and
chemicals in the cotton fields contribute to asthma, COPD
and other lung-related diseases. Lack of fresh, healthy
foods, “fried everything,” and poor
dental care resulting in loss of teeth and inability to
chew foods all contribute to nutritional issues.
“We can't change centuries of social injustice
and economic slavery,” Sister Anne reflected.
“As a nun, my job is to be as conscious, as I
possibly can be, of those who have not, and to reach out
to them. I receive much more from my patients than I
could ever give them. What I do is more than a career.
It's my life.”
The nuns live simply on minimal salaries but Sister Anne
says the fact that they are educated, eat healthily and
own conveniences like a car and computer separate them
from being truly poor like many of their patients. She
added that poverty doesn't define a person, saying that
her patients are giving, loving and deeply spiritual.
Racial prejudice is no longer as strong as it was when
she arrived. Today's Tutwiler has experienced new growth
and declining poverty. But old habits die hard and new
challenges have emerged. Drug and alcohol abuse, along
with crime, is on the rise.
“In many ways, things remain the
same,” Sister Anne said. “Too many of
our patients are just in survival mode. Their life
circumstances make lasting change very difficult. We do a
lot of education but it's tough to change generations of
She has known and understands adversity. Born to an
alcoholic mother and a Navy captain father, she grew up
in Catholic boarding school after her father left her
there when her parents divorced. The nuns inspired her
with their selflessness and dedication to God. She joined
the Sisterhood and, after getting her degree, taught
school and volunteered at drug rehabilitation clinics
despite her physical handicaps. She spent 17 years
wheelchair bound and in pain before she found a doctor
who correctly diagnosed her and ordered the treatment
that restored her mobility. The experience inspired her
to become a physician.
“God is very generous,” she said.
“I praise God every morning for my
Sister Anne has become somewhat of a reluctant celebrity,
being named Outstanding Physician of the Year in 2012 by
the American Osteopathic Foundation. She is also in
demand as a presenter at national medical conferences and
as a mentor for students majoring in allopathic,
osteopathic and nurse practitioner programs. Students
from all over the country vie to do their rotations in
“My prayer is that one of them will decide to
come back here and practice,” Sister Anne said.
“More than anything, we really need another
That's not to say she's retiring. She says there is still
too much need in Tutwiler, adding, “When my
brain goes, I guess I will go. I hope my legacy then will
be 1,000 percent job satisfaction!”