Dora’s Gift: Food, Fitness, Family and Faith
I first met Dora Johnson in 1997. I was in my 3rd year of medical school at SUNY Upstate- pregnant with my first child. Upstate had an elective called “Maternal-Fetal Bonding”, where inner city moms were paired with a medical student to focus on bonding with their babies. As this was my first and Dora’s fourth, you can probably figure out who taught whom more. I remember Dora giving me a funny look when we were paired together. Later she told me she was thinking, “What is this young white girl gonna teach me that I don’t already know?”
Dora and I became great friends as we advanced through our pregnancies together. The conversations went something like this:
Me: “Eek! What is that poking through my belly?”
Dora: “That’s an elbow, girl.”
Me: “How am I supposed to sleep with this child partying all night long in my womb?!”
Dora: “Lay on your right side and rub your stomach. He will settle down soon. And don’t drink cold water right before bed. You wake him up!”
What I quickly realized about Dora was that she was smart, articulate, and profoundly compassionate. She was the anchor not just for her family, but her entire community. Dora had very little, but she always found a way to make sure that everyone was taken care of and that they made it through the day. For obvious reasons, people referred to her as their angel.
On June 11, 1997, Dora gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, JaFonta Johnson. (You will see a picture of him in my office where you check out. He is a freshman defensive end on Villanova University’s football team). I remember getting home from my E.R. rotation at 2 am the day he was born. I was so tired. Four hours later, Dora called me to tell me she was sent to the hospital for an induction. I missed his birth by 2 minutes, which meant Dora, the angel, delivered her nearly ten pound son in a complicated delivery all alone. It took me a while to forgive myself for sleeping that extra hour that morning.
So time went on, and despite moving to North Carolina for my medical residency at Duke University, we stayed in touch. When I returned to Syracuse after my residency, Dora and I picked up where we left off, and our families became very close. “Don’t forget me, now,” Dora would always say. She was excited when I started to appear on the Steve Harvey show, and made sure she watched every episode. “Wendy was on Steve Harvey,” she would tell her friends and family.” I wanted to bring Dora and her family to see a show, but she never learned to drive, and was even more terrified to fly.
“C’mon Dora! It will be so much fun!”
“No way Wendy,” she would say.
I forgot to mention: I was not only Dora’s friend- I was also her doctor. This is a blessing and a curse. In August of 2013, I received blood-work on Dora that was very concerning. I rechecked it and it was worse. I called one of my hematology colleagues and confirmed the diagnosis of CML, a very aggressive form of leukemia. Telling her about her diagnosis was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. “God will take care of me,” she said. “Let’s do what we have to do.” There was never a complaint, or a “why me”, just pure determination. Sadly, despite aggressive chemotherapy, Dora lost her battle with leukemia on February 26, 2014 at the age of 51.
But the story of Dora does not end there. One night while I was visiting Dora in the hospital, I had the great pleasure of meeting her pastor, Rev. Carl Clark from Open Arms International Ministries. Pastor Clark was a vibrant, health conscious minister who was very engaging. While we sat and talked, he described to me his vision of creating a church with a foundation in both physical and spiritual health. As he went on about his vision, I caught Dora’s eye and she smiled at me. He looked at us both, shifting his eye back and forth between us.
“What?” he said.
“Pastor, you don’t know what kind of doctor I am, do you?” I answered.
“Well, no. I guess I don’t,” he returned.
“I am a weight loss physician.” I answered. His eyes opened wide, and he stood up. “I’ve been waiting to meet you! God told me you were coming!” Dora nodded and smiled, very clearly understanding what she had done.
There are some days in our life where our purpose is so clear, and this was one of those days. I had been trying to figure out an effective way to address obesity in the city of Syracuse, and right there, through Dora and Pastor Clark, my answer surfaced.
So fast-forward to October, 2015. Pastor Clark and I knew what we were tasked to do, and we both felt a sense of urgency to it. We decided to call the initiative, “Dora’s Gift: Food, Fitness, Family and Faith.” Interestingly, Pastor Clark’s church is 2 blocks from the Syracuse Regional Farmer’s Market, so we knew that great, locally grown food was available in the church neighborhood. We decided we would start with healthy recipes tied to seasonal foods you could pick up there, but we needed somebody to assist with the cooking and the recipes. (It would be quite scary if I were in charge of the cooking, believe me.) I am very lucky to be able to call Chef Kevin Gentile (from Gentile’s Bella Cigna-Named 2015 Best Local Chef by the way) a dear friend. Kevin of course said yes – and the creations began. The food would be tied to Pastor Clark’s sermon, and the day would involve improving the health of your mind, body and spirit. We decided on October 18th at Open Arms Church. The day would include the Sunday Service followed by cooking demos, nutritional education about the foods served, and games and activities for the kids. Pastor Clark had a talented cousin from NYC who developed a cartoon character called Dewey Does, a mixed-race child who loved sports and promoted wellness who would come. I had a friend, Kathy, who was a former clown also trained in telling innovative bible stories to children.
It was an amazing day- filled with health, happiness and love! So much of the Syracuse community came together to make this a successful event. The Salt City Road Warriors ran to fight childhood obesity, and made a $5,000 donation to the cause (Thank you Maureen Clark and Sherri Dozier-Owens!) Wegmans came through with $1,000 gift card to help us purchase additional items for the event (Thank you Evelyn Carter!) Members of Medical Weight Loss of NY contributed time and talent (a special thanks to Martha, Julie, Heidi and her husband John!) Chef Kevin Gentile worked tirelessly throughout the weekend (while also cooking for his restaurant) to come up with some of the healthiest, most delicious fall foods I have ever tasted. And every member of the Scinta/Wendel family worked hard to make it the special event it turned out to be. Nathan and Bryan purchased grills, put up the tent in the back during a thunderstorm along with Heidi’s husband, John- sorry guys! Zachary helped load tables (after a 5K cross country race) and unload at the end, and my Bella –proclaimed “the organizer” by Pastor Clark- decorated, arranged tables, and ordered everyone around (in a gentle way of course.)
Open Arms church welcomed all of us in such a loving way, and Pastor Clark gave the most beautiful sermon I have ever heard. Dora’s family came (even the grandchildren) and her spirit of love and compassion was felt throughout the event. Chef Kevin and I even got up to talk. Despite the snow, it was a success! Here are some pictures of what will be the first of many of Dora’s Gift events that we hope to replicate across the Syracuse community- and maybe even the country. Stay tuned….