FLORIDA CITY — Thomasina Simpson smiled as she looked at a photograph of her late mother, Doris Ison. The picture seemed to conjure up proud memories of the Florida City visionary and activist.
Simpson is now 86 years old. Her recollection of her mother’s healthcare legacy comes and goes. But when it is there, Simpson comes alive, beaming with honor.
“She was never satisfied,” said Simpson about her mother.
That dissatisfaction was well warranted in the 1960s and before. Back then, African-Americans living down South in Florida City and South Miami-Dade did not have access to local health facilities. James Archer Smith in Homestead was the closest hospital. But at the time, blacks were turned away. The journey to Jackson Memorial in Miami was sometimes fatal for those seeking medical help.
“It was a struggle,” said Carolyn Taylor-Pates, Ison’s niece and a Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI) board member. “Kids were dying on the way to Jackson Hospital.”
That struggle and the mounting death toll were the matches that ignited a flame in Ison. Even though she had only a third-grade education, Ison compelled doctors and legislators to create a healthcare center in South Miami-Dade.
In 1971, the Doris Ison Health Care Center was born as just two meager trailers and a few volunteer doctors that Ison had gathered from her church. It was a beacon of hope for a community that had suffered for too long without adequate health care.
That heroic act of activism snowballed into a top-ranking nonprofit healthcare company called Community Health of South Florida, Inc. that has grown year by year.
Ison wanted to make sure that the migrant workers also received proper medical care. “She was walking down the street one day and found a group of Mexicans in the field,” recalled Simpson. “One of the children had whooping cough and she wanted to know why they hadn’t seen a doctor.”
She discovered migrants shared the same lack of access to health care that blacks were experiencing at the time. So she began to make sure that their needs were addressed as well.
“My grandmother was a champion for all people,” said Toni Rogers-Manning, Ison’s granddaughter.
When Ison died in 1989 CHI had grown out of its trailers and was operating with four health center buildings throughout South Miami Dade.
“I never envisioned it to be this big,” said Rogers-Manning. “So for me, I’m overwhelmed that my grandmother, her dream could be ongoing.”
Today Ison’s legacy continues to grow. By March, CHI will open three new healthcare centers bringing its total number of centers to 10. What was once the only place that blacks down South could go for care is now an all inclusive health center. People of all ethnicities and income levels go to CHI for a host of healthcare needs. Those who can’t afford it are taken care of and others are given a sliding fee scale to work with in their budget.
It’s grown from a few volunteer doctors to a staff of more than 600 people with a wide variety of specialties: pediatrics, Ob-Gyn, family medicine, radiology, mental health dental and much more.
“I think that they did a great job,” said Simpson with a smile on her face, the daughter gleaming with hope for the future of her mother’s legacy, born out of such a meager beginning.