By Dixie Ann Black
The Westside Gazette
The sound of the gunshot filled the little Liberty City corner store.
The man fell, blood splattering the items on the convenience store shelves.
Little Erica was only a few steps away. She watched in horror as the man’s body hit the floor. The sound of the gunshot continued to reverberate through her ten-year-old body. She grabbed her head and ducked down to the floor to hide as the sound exploded in her eardrums.
“Somebody help me please! Please, somebody help me!” the gunshot victim lay on the convenience store floor begging for his life as the child watched. Erica was scared out of her mind, but all she could think was, I wish I could help him. I wish I could do something to help him.
A few seconds earlier, this man and another man had been arguing while Erica was paying the cashier for her chips. Now she watched with horror as the man with the gun walked over to the man on the floor.
“I’m sorry man, I’m sorry!”
The bleeding man was crying out, but the man standing over him aimed his gun down at the man on the floor and shot again, and again.
Erica lived in the projects. Shootings were not uncommon. But this was the first time she had experienced the trauma of watching someone die. The ordeal lasted years as she was called to testify.
“The lawyer suggested to my parents that I get counseling.” Erica recalls, “In a community where we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on mental health, I was very appreciative that my parents accepted the advice.” She processed and healed but she can still hear the dying man crying out,
“Somebody, please help me.”
That voice has fueled a yearning to help save lives. It has guided her like a beacon, all the way through medical school. Walton specifically wanted to return to the community that showed the need for help, even as it supported her in her dream of becoming a doctor.
“I really had support poured into me by anyone who knew I was going to medical school,” Walton says of her hometown. Yet she admits that the journey has not been a cushy one. She experienced further traumas while growing up within an underserved community. She witnessed domestic abuse, experienced the divorce of her parents and many of the losses that come along with a fractured family. However, she is grateful for her blended family of six siblings and a stepmother, who came along in time to become her biggest cheerleader as she pursued her career goals. She sees her husband Michael as making her a better person, by strengthening her in hard times. She calls him “the yin to my yang.”
Now Dr. Erica Walton has been practicing medicine since 2010. She attended Fisk University and went to Northwestern Medical School but returned to University of Miami to fulfill her residency in South Florida. She worked as a family medical practitioner but was recruited to take over the HIV clinic at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in 2014. After undergoing a stringent AIDS Education and Training program with special training in immunology she was further equipped to work with HIV patients.
“Growing up in an underserved community and seeing the disadvantages firsthand fostered in me a passion to address these issues.” Dr. Walton went on to underscore the effect of dietary choices on minorities. She is constantly educating her patients by telling them about the effects of high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. She tells her patients,
“Your HIV isn’t going to kill you, but you have these things….”
Walton was fortunate to have a professor at Fisk University who understood and addressed the pull of heritage. She is quick to point out to her patients that she grew up on the staples of a typical African American household, but through her education at Fisk she redirects her patients toward eating more nutritional versions of the foods they love.
“What people eat is rooted in their traditions, so let’s just prepare them in a way that’s not bad for you,” she tells her patients.
In addition to trying to save her patients through nutritional overhauls, Dr. Walton also attacks the “viral load” (how much of the virus is in the system) and works on keeping the immune system healthy. She points out that if the immune system is healthy, it reduces the power of co-morbidities such as heart disease, hepatitis, diabetes and more.
Dr. Walton has won two awards from the Ryan White Program for the control of HIV. The program focuses on the uninsured in each county and the effects of the services they receive.
She has been the Medical Director of the AHF Healthcare Center -Biscayne for over two years now. Some patients have moved with her from other locations because of the deep respect she shows to them. She credits this deep respect to her relationship with God. She thanks her stepmother for re-introducing her to the church after her childhood trauma and instilling confidence in her.
“In medical school I was one of only five people of color in a school of about three hundred students.” Walton pointed out the temptation to feel inferior in such a setting. Instead, she now uses the confidence she gained to encourage her patients,
“I tell my HIV folks; I want you to know you are coming to someone who does not look down on you. You are not going to die from this, and this does not define you.”
She answers the cries for help in obvious and subtle ways. One young patient with no support system was at death’s door yet refused to take medications. She treated him and called him daily to encourage him until he was recovered enough to return to his home state.
“He was the sickest person I’d ever seen, and I was able to make him feel like his life was valuable.”
In this way, that dying man’s request on the convenience store floor, “Somebody help me please!” Is answered every day.
Dr. Walton’s journey in helping to answer that request, shines light on the fact that, once again, one man’s death can result in the saving of many others.