KATIE DYSAN IS A FREE OLD WOMAN
When more than 30 years ago Dr. Henry Wicker Jr. came to Fredericksburg as the first black surgeon, he said some people looked at him as if he had left a spaceship.
Others did not want to see him at all. There were a few patients who did not understand his race when signing up for an appointment. He came into the room to introduce himself, said a few words and went out so they could change into the patient’s dress. When he returned, they were gone.
Even when a famous doctor started recommending it, the referral came with a reservation.
“He warned them that I was“ colored, ”Wicker said.
Meanwhile, there was a backlash among Blacks. People were so excited by his practice that they came even when they didn’t need surgery.
“They just wanted to see the Black Doctor,” he said.
The 63-year-old Wicker has become a surgeon chosen by other doctors to perform their procedures, said Crystal Jernigan, director of surgical services at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center. His general surgical practice initially included everything from breast cancer to vascular problems, but over time it narrowed as Wicker specialized in the abdomen.
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Nurse Leah Blake, who said other doctors regularly turn to operating room nurses like her when they need to do work, put it this way: “You want your hernia done, you go to Dr. Wicker.”
Vicker would probably laugh at her words and would also be a little embarrassed by the awards. He is not looking for the spotlight, but agreed to the story after HCA Virginia, which owns a hospital in Spotsylvania, singled him out as a health hero during Black History Month.
He believes his family has an “interesting and inspiring story” and he is proud of the paths they have paved. His great-grandfather, AEP Albert, was the son of a slave, but he received his medical degree in the 1880s and became a staunch supporter of civil rights in Louisiana.
Albert’s wife, Octavia, was also born into slavery but was educated in Georgia and wrote a book on the slave experience called The House of Captivity.
The Wicker family has a copy of that book, shabby and shabby. The surgeon believed it was the only one left until scientist Henry Louis Gates Jr. included it in a collection of 19th-century black authors.
The emphasis that his great-grandmother and grandfather placed on education has remained a core family value for centuries.
“Each of their descendants was at least a college graduate, and most of us have academic degrees,” Wicker said. “It’s unusual when the black family dates back to the 19th century. We are talking about five generations. “
Many became teachers, like his brother and eldest daughter. Still others entered the medical field, including Vicker’s father, the late Dr. Henry Wicker Sr., who was the first black ophthalmologist at George Washington University Hospital in the 1960s.
OFF LIMITS / ON CAMPUS
Junior Wicker did not plan to go into medicine.
“I was going to be a bomber pilot, that’s what I was going to do,” he said with a sincere laugh. “I just fell in love with military aviation. I had models of airplanes hanging from the ceiling, and a B-52 hung right over the bed. I was going to be a B-52 pilot. “
He even received an Air Force scholarship. But in the years after Vietnam – in the late 1970s – Wicker said the country “had no taste for the military. . . and ROTC was not a popular place. “
When he learned that the Air Force was looking for doctors, not pilots, he changed direction. It wasn’t quite about the face, as he was already familiar with the world of medicine at the time with his father and his contemporaries.
His family lived in Washington, D.C., where his mother, Geralin, taught in urban schools and made it a matter of her life to instill a thirst for education in children who had very little in the form of leadership or security, ”Wicker said.
She wanted him to go to Harvard. But he also spent a lot of time with his family in New Orleans, so when he was admitted early to Tulein University, Wicker did not apply anywhere else. There he worked undergraduate and received a medical degree from the Medical School in 1985.
Tulein’s choice was especially significant for Vicker’s father, who did not have the same opportunities. Legalized segregation – the notion that opportunities were “separate but equal” – began in New Orleans and was so widespread that any black man who objected to it was arrested. Tulane was clearly inaccessible to the Blacks during the time of the elder Wicker.
“Every time my father came to visit the campus, he remarked, ‘You know, I couldn’t even walk across the street, and now I’m walking the campus with you,'” Wicker recalled. .
As a young man, Wicker felt proud of his father, but probably did not understand the scale of what he felt.
“Today I feel different, looking back as an elderly person with children than in my younger years and just excited to be away from home,” he said.
‘HE SAVED MY LIFE’
Wicker underwent an internship and residency at Howard University Hospitals. His teacher was Dr. Lasalle Lefal Jr., a world-renowned surgeon and educator who trained more than 4,500 medical students.
Wicker still retains the “Chair Award,” presented to him by Lefal in June 1990, which hangs in his office at Pratt Medical Center opposite the Spotsylvania Regional. The award was presented to a resident with the highest skills, “who, according to the department, demonstrated the attributes necessary for a safe and skilled surgeon.”
Wicker appreciates the award because Lefal instilled in his students that surgeons need stellar skills and a great deal of humanity. While others of that era put surgeons on a pedestal – believing that technical competence outweighed everything else, including compassion – Lefol conveyed “the feeling that you were servants”.
Wicker never forgot a lesson.
“He was bigger than life, generous, just a wonderful man,” Wicker said. “I’m still spending time trying to emulate him. He never succeeds, but he always tries. ”
Those who worked with him – and took care of them – will say otherwise.
“I consider him my savior,” said Valentin Aksilenko, who came to America from Russia in 1993, three years after Wicker opened his practice. “He saved my life not once but several times.”
Aksilenka’s long history with the surgeon began with a diagnosis of stage 4 colorectal cancer and included a complex and difficult initial operation – and there have been many since then. The former KGB operative and Kremlin officer were returned to the first procedure at 10 am, and his wife Irena clearly remembers sitting in the waiting room. It was after midnight when Wicker appeared.
“I was alone, lying on the couch and he came out and he was tired, his eyes were bloodshot,” as the surgery involved more organs than originally thought, she said.
Irena Aksilenka cried when Vicker explained that the procedure resulted in a bag for colostomy, which means that her husband’s waste should be transferred to another direction.
“I cried on his shoulders, and he tried to calm me down and calm me down, telling me that this is not the end of the world, that people have been living with this condition for years,” she said. “Almost 20 years have passed and we owe Val’s life to him. Without a doubt, without a doubt. “
This story probably wouldn’t have surprised David McKnight, former CEO of Spotsylvania Regional. Wicker was chief of staff and “one of the hospital’s patriarchs” when McKnight first joined the team in 2015. He found Wicker a perfectionist.
“It demands the best, which for some can be scary. But it makes you better, ”McKnight said. “He’s an incredible teacher, and if you want to see how things should be done, you follow him. Patients love him for the way he can explain things. If he had to draw a diagram to better explain something, he would draw it himself. “
But perhaps the best evidence of Vicker’s skill is Lawrence Davis, the first black mayor of Fredericksburg and a man known for his calming influence in troubled times.
Like others, he visited Wicker on medical matters.
“He saved me from an operation that was unnecessary, and I will be forever grateful to him for that,” Davis said.
As the years went by, Vicker evolved from a “bit of curiosity,” as he called himself in his early days in Fredericksburg, to a surgeon known for his kindness and competence rather than complexion.
“He is highly respected and valued as a doctor,” Davis said. “Not as a black doctor, but as a doctor in society.”
Katie Dyson: 540 / 374-5425