Dr. Justin Turner’s inherent ability to care and service others is inextricably linked to his grandparents, Will T. Turner Sr. and Florence “Cutie” Turner. His grandfather was among the first Black aldermen in Fayette, Mississippi, having been responsible for bringing Charles Evers – the brother of Medgar Evers – to the town in 1963. Evers would later become the first Black mayor of Fayette. Turner Sr. was also elected as alderman at that time and served three terms.
Turner Sr. was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He was an NAACP member who regularly attended meetings. He participated in many civil rights marches, and he was not afraid to speak out about inequality and injustice to the point of being arrested for it. This legacy greatly affected Dr. Turner and led to his belief that his life work is an extension of his grandparents’ sacrifices.
“When I started my clinic, which is called TurnerCare, it started under the name that had to do with my grandparents. The whole time that we’ve been carrying out the mission, I’ve always thought about my grandparents and making them proud and carrying on the legacy because the vision should never die with the visionary,” expressed Dr. Turner.
For Dr. Turner, his mission in life is made possible by the myriad of people who helped raise him and educate him throughout the years, including his teachers and librarians. That sense of community drove Dr. Turner to tailor his approach to medicine to treat the whole person. He feels that his patients’ health “can only be optimized if we understand physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are interrelated and not separate entities.”
Dr. Turner doubled down on that level of commitment at the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020. “When COVID came, it showed how it disproportionately affected people in the minority community. In Mississippi at one point, over 70% of the deaths and 60% of the cases were in people that look like me, and we make up less than 40% of the population. So that’s a huge health disparity.”
The droves of people – patients and nonpatients – that reached out to Dr. Turner throughout the pandemic touched him in his role as not just a doctor but as community caretaker. “My wife would tell you, I don’t cry a lot. But when that data came out and I was hearing from people who lost loved ones – people that I didn’t even know would just inbox me, reaching out to me [for] help.”
Those people reaching out for help was a turning point for Dr. Turner. At the time, he “felt like no matter how much I wanted things to be better, they couldn’t be better with anything that I could do on my own.” Dr. Turner then began to reach out to the greater community, including Dr. Thomas Dobbs who, until recently, was the Mississippi State Department of Health’s chief health officer. Dr. Turner notes that Dr. Dobbs was intentional in making sure that every community was taken care of, including the Black communities in various parts of the state.
“We got with Dr. Victor Sutton [MSDH Director of the Office of Preventive Health and Health Equity], Black leaders all across the state from the faith community to the political [arena], including the Legislative Black Caucus, community organizations, and our HBCUs, and before you know it, the numbers went from over 70% of the deaths being Black to 30-35%, which is where we are now. We bridged the gap.”
According to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, Black people have died at 1.4 times faster than their white counterparts nationwide. In Washington, D.C., where Blacks make up 46% of the population, 49% of the cases and 76% of the deaths affected the Black community. Although only 14% of Michigan’s population is Black, 23% of the deaths were from Black households. Mississippi is 50th in healthcare, but the work of medical professionals like Dr. Turner helped turn the tide of a major health disparity and crisis for the Black community here.
There are three main things that Dr. Turner says attributes to the reduction in COVID cases and deaths in Mississippi’s Black community over the past three years. “We improved education because a lot of people didn’t know any better. They were arguing on Facebook with me telling me Black people couldn’t get COVID and how we were protected because of our skin with no science to back it up. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have to worry about social media, but now anyone can post something on social media and people claim it as a fact. And they believe it. So the first thing is education, education, education.
“The second thing was just realizing how much distrust was out there. Before I can educate and get people to believe what I’m saying, I had to get people to separate me from the established medical community that had them continue to bring up Tuskegee and other things. I had to tell people, ‘You all know me and I understand you don’t trust the government, but y’all trust me.
‘I’m the same person that you all have been looking to for direction with weight management, diabetes, and heart disease.’”
Dr. Turner continued, “As leaders, a lot of times we sit in these board meetings and try to figure out how to help the people. And we forget that the people are a part of the help. The community had the answers; they explained why they didn’t have the trust. We had to do more than just talk at a press conference. We had to go to the barbershops. We had to go to the salons. We had to go to the people, let them express their concerns, and go from there.
“Then third is just the resources. I had Black people tell me that they were going to the ER, and they couldn’t get a COVID test. They were being sent home. How can we help these people? They’re not even being properly diagnosed, so we got it to where anyone can get a COVID test. We took it to the HBCUs, and we took it to the community. We leveled the playing field, and we leveled the data. Coach Prime talks about that all the time at Jackson State. We had to do the same thing in health.”
Now, Dr. Turner will be taking the practice of leveling the playing field to the MS State Department of Health where he is stepping into his new role as chief medical officer.
His grandparents, Will and Florence Turner, were as much a part of Turner’s decision to take the role as they have been in the ordered steps of his life before now. Turner expressed that they were a vital part of his decision.
“My granddad visited me in a dream before I decided to accept the position,” Turner recalled. “I miss them so much, but I know they are smiling down and I know that they’re proud.”
The Jackson Advocate looks forward to chronicling the work that Dr. Turner has done in the community as well as the initiatives he is excited to implement at MSDH over the next coming months.