Those words, stated by an eighth-grade history teacher, became the mantra for author James V. Ellis. In Triumphs, Tragedies, and Tears, part one of his memoirs, Ellis provides a full account of his life and career and highlights about his work-from growing up as a little boy on welfare without a father, to working as a respected physician and becoming a dedicated husband and father, to his suicide attempt, and short prison term.
The story of a boy who dreamed big, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Tears shows how one black man overcame many obstacles to become a successful doctor in the Mid-South and then had to begin a new life with life tools that promote spiritual connectedness, mental and physical fitness, and emotional maturity. His recovery is and continues to be a miracle, inspiring many to hope and dream rather than give up.
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Triumphs, Tragedies, and TearsLife Journey of a Mid-South Doctor, Part One
By James Van Norwood Ellis
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 James Van Norwood Ellis, MD
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly Years
How did I get here? What happened? I was a successful physician, well-respected by everyone. Well, maybe not everyone, but certainly by most. I had traveled far along life's journey, from a little boy on welfare without a father, to being a devoted father and, yes, a devoted husband. I had been blessed with a wonderful wife, daughter, and son. I tried to please everyone, tried to make everyone happy. I did everything for everyone! I freely gave of myself, my time, my money, and my heart, to my family and to my patients. Yet, here I sit in a dark cell, completely naked, with nothing to lie on except cold concrete and steel. Despite all of the good I had done with my life, here I am in jail on suicide watch. I fucked up! I gave up on life, tried to commit suicide, and committed a serious crime during the attempt—a crime I don't remember. What I did was wrong, and this is the punishment I deserve. I close my eyes and cry. For some unexplained reason, the course of my entire life began to play like a movie in my mind, starting from the beginning.
James Van Norwood Ellis, what a mouthful! I was the firstborn child of James and Catherine Sims Ellis. I arrived on the eleventh of February 1951, one of millions of baby boomers born to the World War II generation. My sister, Ina, was born one year later. We all moved to Richmond, Virginia, just after my second birthday. The move was necessary in order for my dad to keep his job when the company he worked for relocated. That said, my dad was born and grew up in Richmond, so he was returning home. My first memory of Richmond is from my early childhood. I was lying on my abdomen on the plush lawn of my backyard. As in a fairy tale, the setting is always absolutely serene. I felt that God was displaying his handiwork especially for me. I lay there in the grass, not thinking, but absorbing nature's display in my own backyard. Butterflies of all varieties floated by while flocks of birds flew overhead, calling to each other in a language only they understood. A myriad of insects including bumblebees and hornets methodically sampled dandelions and other wildflowers in my backyard. It was an early spring day with dew still glistening on blades of grass, the sun framed by a cloudless and seemingly endless blue sky. Yes, I thought to myself, life is good. I felt special, chosen; I definitely felt that I was the golden child. I was smart, energetic, and happy.
Mom, Dad, and just about everyone addressed me by my middle name, Van. Dad was reserved: quiet, but feared. His stout frame with large arms and legs projected a powerful image. There was no doubt that he was an athlete, and indeed he had been. He was an all-state running back in high school and was very popular and well-liked. He was to attend Virginia Union University on a full football scholarship, but World War II interrupted his plans to attend college. America declared war on Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy, following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, during which more than two thousand American servicemen died. A massive sentiment of rage and disgust against the Japanese swept the country; everyone wanted revenge. Dad volunteered shortly after his eighteenth birthday in December of 1941. He was assigned to the Third Army, under General George S. Patton. Dad never talked about the war except occasionally when I inquired about his military service. When I was a small boy, I remembered sitting with him on the couch watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights. He enjoyed watching boxing and would tell me about his military service and how he boxed for the army during the war. Many years later, I discovered how patriotic he was. He was angrier at the Nazis than at the Japanese because of their racism; he remembered how Joe Louis and Jesse Owens were received in Germany. The reports of Nazi concentration camps and the mass murder of Jews enraged him. Many years later, I discovered information from old family records that he was possibly part Jewish on his father's side.
Mom was tall, with flawless ebony skin. She grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, the youngest of eleven children. I never met her father but do remember one visit from her mother, who had the same flawless skin with long, silky black hair down to her waist. She was part Choctaw Indian. Mom ran the house, doing the cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing. There were not enough hours in the day to keep up with all the work, but Mom always smiled. As the eldest, I helped as much as I could with the chores. By my fifth birthday, our family had five kids—a baby born every year. You can imagine that it was hectic, but my mother never took shortcuts. She made all meals with fresh ingredients every day, and on Sunday, meals were exceptional. My absolute favorite meal was golden-brown fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, greens (collards, turnips, or both), and mouth-watering homemade rolls that melted in your mouth. Occasionally she served roast beef or turkey instead of chicken. Dessert always included homemade ice cream, which I enjoyed helping to make.
Mom was the front-line disciplinarian, and quite good at it! She had a talent for always picking one of those stinging green switches. When Mom was not enough, Dad would take over discipline. Therefore, I tried hard to stay on my parents' good sides.
I started elementary school at age five. The morning of my first day of school, I was up early. I got dressed and ate breakfast. While waiting to walk to school, I made a toy to play with to pass the time. I made most of my toys. On this morning, I made a toy from a string and metallic nut. I twirled my new toy in a wide circle as fast as I could. Then, without warning, the whirling metallic nut crashed into my left eyebrow, leaving a nasty gash. Thank goodness it missed my eye! Mom bandaged my cut, and then I was off to school.
I was very eager to start school. It was the forum that I needed to get the attention I craved at home. I became the teacher's pet quickly; I seemed to know all the answers, which made me the center of attention. I enjoyed being in the limelight. The school curriculum seemed so easy that by second grade, I had developed the attitude that I did not need to complete assigned homework because I was so smart. My second-grade teacher brought me back to reality with a dose of corporal punishment. I never failed to complete any homework after that.
I became well-known to all the teachers at my elementary school by third grade as "Mr. Straight As." My mom, however, was not impressed by my school grades. She thought it was a waste for a black man to get an education. She would say, "What good is an education when it doesn't help you get a decent job? What kind of work can you do besides a desk job? If you want to earn a decent wage and support a family, you need to get a good-paying factory job." I was hurt deeply by her comments and vowed to prove her wrong. I believed that getting an education was best for my future success. I realized what an education had done for many of the teachers who were my mentors. My dad appeared to be neutral about the value of an education. However, one of my Christmas presents from him, which I still treasure, was a chalk board and white chalk. He called me, "The Little Professor."
Mom and Dad began to have marital problems by my seventh birthday. It appeared to be related to Mom's recent embrace of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My dad rebelled because he would have to give up smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and eating pork. Surprisingly, he became a church member and behaved for one year, after which their relationship began to deteriorate rapidly. Dad became bitter about the dietary restrictions. He hated not smoking, and occasionally I would catch him sneaking a smoke. It seemed to me that the straw that broke the camel's back was the matter of paying tithes. I overheard many bitter arguments between my parents regarding tithing. Dad would argue that he did not understand why he had to pay ten percent of his hard-earned income that was desperately needed to provide for our growing family, which included six kids. His refusal to pay tithes caused mom to retaliate by leaving with all six of us kids in tow. By my eighth birthday, they had reconciled with Dad agreeing to tithe. However, the truce was short-lived. The fighting and arguing started again in less than six months. Physical abuse restarted, and escalated quickly. I was brave enough to try to stop my dad, but my eight-year-old self presented no physical threat. He easily tossed me aside, like the wind blowing a leaf.
Mom and Dad separated again, and shortly thereafter, Dad disappeared, leaving my mother with six hungry kids to feed without financial support. We quickly found ourselves homeless, living with church members until mom could obtain public assistance and public housing. I began to hate my life. I hated the old or ragged clothes, holes in my shoes, and constant hunger. My best meal was lunch at school. My welfare ticket usually granted me a hot meal including dessert and milk. Meals at home had generally gone meatless, consisting of white beans and cornbread; breakfast was either cream of wheat or oatmeal. Food serving sizes at home were always meager, so getting big portions free at school was a real treat.
As time passed, my hunger overtook my pride. I would quickly eat my entire lunch, take my empty tray back to the tray return area, and then wait for others turning in trays with food still on them that I would devour. Several of my peers conspired to mock me; they started dumping their leftover food into the trash right in front of me, saying, "Oh James, I'm so sorry! I forgot that you are poor and hungry." Once they walked away, I quickly grabbed anything edible dumped in the trash and gobbled it. Soon, I lost any pride I had left, grabbing leftovers before they hit the garbage can. I became the subject of many cruel jokes. However, I didn't care; I was hungry and had found a way to get the additional nutrition I needed. Some of the teachers began to pay attention to my actions and ordered me away from the tray return area. One day, a teacher was stationed at the food tray return area, putting an end to my food bonanza. I cried, not loudly but in a dignified manner, with no noise, just tears streaming down my face.
As I suffered quietly, a teacher approached me, gently placed her hand on my shoulder, and spoke to me softly as a mother would speak to her own son. "Young man, don't cry" she said, drying my tears with a soft white tissue. "Please come to my classroom with me. I have something for you."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied. Her classroom was located just down the hall leading from the cafeteria. I saw her name on the door: Mrs. Lillian Epps, Fifth Grade. My spirits lifted! I had heard about Mrs. Epps. Everyone wanted to be in her class. She was regarded as one of the best teachers by all students and teachers. It went beyond being lucky if you were in her class; you were blessed. She turned to speak to me after we entered her classroom. "James, I am so sorry about your home situation. I know you must be very hungry. Here, take this sandwich and apple. I want you to eat it. Go ahead, sit down."
Eagerly, I took the food. The sandwich was pimento cheese. Yummy! I thought as I chewed happily.
Smiling, Mrs. Epps asked, "How is it?"
"Wonderful!" I replied. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Epps!"
"You are most welcome, dear." Her face grew serious. "Now, James, I don't want to see you eating off of the food trays and out of the garbage can. I will look for you every day and make sure you have had enough to eat. Okay?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said and nodded.
She continued, "You are a very good student with a bright future. I want you in my class. I want to encourage you to continue to study hard and do well. Your future is very bright if you continue performing well and doing your best."
"I would love to be in your class. Thank you so much!"
"You are welcome!" she replied with her soft hand touching my face. "How does your stomach feel now?"
"Wonderful!" I floated out of her classroom and quickly proceeded to my own fourth-grade room still wearing a broad smile as I took my seat. That day I started to believe in angels. Surely Mrs. Epps was one.
Fourth grade ended uneventfully. Summer bought an unexpected surprise. The stress of being a single mom with an army of hungry kids took its toll on my mother. There was never enough money or food, but Mom still gave tithes to the church, which added further economic stress, and the cavalry to help or rescue us was nowhere in sight. Many nights I listened to Mom cry and pray. One morning she refused to get up. I did the best I could helping my brothers and sisters prepare for school, but each morning that Mom stayed in bed it got more difficult. Neighbors and teachers began to notice that we looked dirtier, shabbier, and hungrier. One day I arrived home and Mom was gone. I panicked. One of my neighbors informed me that several people from the state had taken her away. I found out later that she had been confined to a mental hospital because she had suffered a nervous breakdown.
The first night my brothers, sisters, and I were alone, my fear and panic evolved into a resolute determination to carry on, to survive, and to care for my siblings. The next morning, I decided to make money. It was common practice for boys my age to gather outside of the front of a grocery store and offer to help individuals with their groceries. Since most patrons walked to the grocery store, I offered to carry their groceries in my red wagon (my Christmas present from my dad prior to his disappearance). I charged a quarter for this service; the first day I earned $1.50. I used the money to buy bread, our food for the day. A whole week passed, and every afternoon I returned home with whatever I could afford to buy—usually just bread. One morning, just before I was about to leave the house, a black car with a large emblem on its door stopped in front of the house we were renting. I could see the words State of Virginia on the car door, and I knew instantly that it must be welfare people. All six of us crowded into the car and were delivered to foster homes. My sister Ina and I were fortunate enough to go to Uncle Harry and Aunt Maria. The rest of my siblings were placed in strangers' homes.
Uncle Harry was my father's eldest brother. He and his wife had two children, my cousins Cookie and Joe. My sister Janice was placed with relatives of Aunt Maria who lived next door. Both Cookie and Joe were older than I, four years and ten years respectively. We all seemed to tolerate each other well. Cookie had just started high school; Joe had recently joined the United States Marine Corps. They weren't really academic, so I was considered rather odd because I loved to read, especially books about science and scientists.
I cleaned up cousin Joe's old bike and began exploring Richmond, thrilled to have transportation to the state and city libraries to read more books about science and invention. My heroes were George Washington Carver and Thomas Edison, particularly the latter, because he and I shared the same birthday. In those days, science was on everyone's mind. The Russians' recent launch of the first satellite to orbit the Earth stunned the United States, which, until this event, had felt that it was the world leader in scientific advancement. The launch of Sputnik was a reality check for the United States. The USSR sent a message to the world that they had become the leader in science, math, and discovery. President Kennedy issued a challenge to all Americans—especially the youth—to meet and surpass the apparent Soviet technological edge. He challenged America to place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. I accepted this challenge; I would become a scientist.
I entered fifth grade energized by my goal. I also eagerly anticipated being assigned to Mrs. Epps' class. She assigned me to a seat in the front row, the typical location for the teacher's pet. Aware of my passion for science, she always called on me to answer when no one volunteered. With a smile, she'd say, "I bet James knows the answer!" Usually I did, because of my extensive summer reading—all those science and mathematics books!
Excerpted from Triumphs, Tragedies, and Tears by James Van Norwood Ellis Copyright © 2011 by James Van Norwood Ellis, MD. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Early Years....................1
2. Cushing Years....................22
3. College Years....................35
4. Medical School and Internship....................58
6. Private Practice....................116
7. Trail to Decline....................157
8. Alive or Dead....................170
9. Ridgeview: The Beginning of Healing and Recovery....................174
10. Prison and My New Life....................183
Works Consulted List....................191
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I met Jimmy Ellis in 1965 when we were freshmen at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham MA. He was a gentle young man with a maturity beyond his years. This is his memoir. Unpolished, raw, painful to read and painfully honest, but in the end you realize that no matter what obstacles were thrown at James Van Norwood Ellis, MD, he was and remains destined to succeed and leave this world a better place. Even if it takes some divine intervention. A MUST read.
It has been truly difficult to find the best words to review this memoir. From a young age, Dr. Ellis has jumped many hurdles and surmounted unimaginable obstacles, reaching heights of success juxtaposed with the depths of despair and depression. The details of this true story are a testament to the power of a person's inner drive to succeed. Bravo Dr. Ellis for having the courage to write such a moving personal memoir!
An exceptional account of the real world seen through the eyes of an intelligent, compassionate and realistic man who journeys from destitution to education to desperation. Race is the backdrop of this remarkable memoir as Ellis dealt with every profoundly difficult challenge. There were some very painful reads throughout the book, but not as painful as they must have been to live through. I hope Dr. Ellis's follow-up is soon to be released.