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Charles Moore receives Thomas Jefferson Award for community health service

Charles Moore examines a young patient at the HEALing Community Center, which he founded to help bridge the health care gap in Atlanta. Photo by Jack Kearse.

A few weeks into the job, Dr. Charles Moore had seen enough. 

Enough patients walking into Grady Memorial Hospital so disfigured by advanced head and neck cancers they could barely breathe. Enough conditions that could have been caught earlier with better outcomes. Enough lost treatment opportunities.

When Moore arrived at Emory in 1998, part of the attraction was the opportunity to gain hands-on experience working at a so-called “safety net hospital,” a facility that serves all populations, including the uninsured and underinsured, low-income and economically vulnerable.

“With the indigent care aspect, I thought it would be a great opportunity to give back,” recalls Moore, a professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at Emory School of Medicine and chief of the Department of Otolaryngology for Grady Health Systems.

“It seemed like something that would fit with my personality, my desire to help those who otherwise would not have had access to care or who had limited choices,” he says. “This job allows you to be an important part of that process.”

But the realities of seeing people not access health care soon enough haunted him. “When I kept seeing these patients over and over again who could have been helped if they had found medical help earlier, I thought, ‘Somebody needs to do something about this.’”

Finally, he decided, “Maybe it should be me.” 

So Moore began tracking the zip codes of his patients, discovering that some of his toughest, most advanced cases were originating from the neediest West Atlanta neighborhoods. In search of answers, he hopped in his car and ventured into those very areas, uncertain of exactly what he was looking for or might find.

Bus stops. Homeless shelters. Community centers. Church groups. Moore made it his mission to listen. What were the biggest barriers to preventive care? Insurance? Transportation? Household budgets that required choosing between filling prescriptions and paying the rent? 

What began as neighborhood talks to increase awareness about head and neck cancers would open his eyes to yawning medical gaps within the community, knowledge that would inspire his own brand of activism — an activism of healing.

Bridging a critical gap 

Soon, Moore was filling plastic tubs with medical supplies and taking his skills to the streets — a one-man mobile doctor’s office — seeking out non-traditional locations where he knew people would have trouble accessing basic health screenings and primary care. 

In time, he would simply be known as “the doc in the green Subaru,” dispensing care from his Tupperware clinics.

Out of those early efforts, Moore would create and found the HEAL (Health Education Assessment and Leadership) Coalition in 2006. Three years later, his work found a brick-and-mortar home in the HEALing Community Center, a federally qualified community health care center created to address the needs of uninsured patients living in poverty through preventive, primary and specialty care.

Now expanded to four locations in metro Atlanta, including two school-based health centers, the HEALing Community Center serves more than 5,000 unduplicated patients annually and also functions as a teaching base for the Emory School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Laney Graduate School and Emory College, in addition to several other area universities. 

In addition to teaching at Emory’s School of Medicine and seeing patients as chief of otolaryngology at Grady, Moore serves as president for the HEALing Community Center, a director of Emory’s Urban Health Initiative and numerous medical board appointments — wide-ranging responsibilities that literally cover both sides of his business card.

In recognition of his leadership, commitment and “heroic efforts in community health and service,” Moore will receive the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Award at the Emory Commencement ceremony on Monday, May 14.

Named and endowed by the Robert Earl McConnell Foundation, the award honors a member of the Emory faculty or staff who has significantly enriched the intellectual and civic life of the Emory community.

Sitting in his modest office at Grady Memorial Hospital, Moore says he’s “still in shock and unbelievably honored” to receive news of the award.

Those who know Moore commend the sweeping impact of his work to bridge the health care gap. “I think what’s impressive about Charles is that this didn’t start overnight,” says Douglas Mattox, William Chester Warren Jr. MD Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, who first recruited Moore to consider Emory. 

“This has been a goal and a mission of his from the beginning,” Mattox says. “It’s only been through his persistence and doggedness that he’s gotten where he is. But it hasn’t been easy.” 

In addition to providing hands-on care and enlisting the support of other area providers to meet the needs of the underserved, Moore became a quick study in the fundraising required to support community programs.

Over the last decade, Moore has written grants and helped raise millions of dollars to support community education, provide preventive care and train providers to increase health care access in low-resourced urban and rural communities, says Mattox.

His service on professional, advisory and community service boards is extensive, notes Mattox, including local and national otolaryngology societies, the Governor’s Advisory Council of the Georgia Shapework Group, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, the Executive Council of the American Association for Cancer Education, and the American Cancer Society, where he has served as a board member since 2015.

“Phenomenally, all of these activities have not detracted from his clinical and teaching duties at Grady, where he maintains a busy operating room and clinic schedule as well as the administrative duties associated with being chief of service,” Mattox noted in his nominating letter.

As for what fuels those sprawling endeavors, Mattox says, “I think it’s his humanity, his concern for the underserved. His faith plays a big role, as well.” 

Building a life of service 

Moore will tell you that he’s always been someone who roots for the underdog. 

“I find it difficult to ignore things that are not right,” he says. “In my family, that’s just how we were raised.” 

Growing up in the small, rural hamlet of Nedrow in upstate New York, Moore knew he wanted to be a doctor by the age of 4, and his parents supported that dream in every way.

“My father worked construction, and would leave a splinter in his hand all day so that I could practice taking it out at home,” Moore recalls.

When a sister began volunteering at a facility for individuals with multiple disabilities, Moore tagged along, eventually volunteering himself. “I got to see some of the issues that folks with hearing and speech challenges had to deal with on a daily basis, which supported my interest in the medical field.” 

He attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, majoring in biology and music. Growing up, Moore enjoyed singing and played “a little piano and the alto-sax.” But while in college, he developed a laryngeal disorder, which restricted him from playing the saxophone.

Though it eventually resolved, the experience drew him into the realm of ear, nose and throat disorders — an interest he carried to studies at Harvard University Medical School, which his parents both worked two jobs to support “so I could graduate with no debt.”

During his residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an NIH research fellowship, “great mentors” further nurtured his interest in otolaryngology and neck surgery. When an opportunity arose to work at Emory and Grady Memorial Hospital, Moore didn’t hesitate.

“My goal is to be a servant leader,” he explains. “This position feeds my desire to continue to give.” 

Some days, he is tested. In his office in Grady, Moore displays a letter presented to him by a patient after a day so challenging he had started typing a letter of resignation:

“Dr. Moore,” it reads, “None of us live unto ourselves alone. The minute we are born we begin to owe something to someone. We have a debt to pay. In accepting a job as a public servant or a job that deals directly with the public, we are honor-bound to perform that job to the best of our ability.” 

“Being a doctor, one accepts responsibility not only to the medical profession, but to humanity… when history is written, your name may not be mentioned, but your performance as a doctor and as a human being will be remembered. Keep up the wonderful work that you do…”

On his toughest days, that is enough.

“If I can use any talents I might have to help someone, I need to do that,” Moore says.

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