Nearly 25 years ago, Jamilah Peters-Muhammad was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that causes muscle inflammation and skin rashes. The doctors told her she had six months to a year to live. 

Peters-Muhammad, who is known as “Mama Jamilah” in the community, leaned on her faith.

“I had to give this to the only one who has control over this,” Peters-Muhammad remembered saying to her doctor. “There was no fear. I was barely 50 years-old at the time. I had young children. I had grandchildren. It was a lot of life I was looking at.”

A New Orleans native, Peters-Muhammad went through the nursing program offered in New Orleans Public Schools and later received her nursing degree from Dillard University. 

During her nursing career, Peters-Muhammad worked at several hospitals in the city including Touro Infirmary and Tulane Medical Center. But she left the hospital setting nearly 35 years ago because she wanted to become “more community-oriented in my practices.”

“I felt like a mechanic. I felt like I was doing tune-ups at the hospital,” said Peters-Muhammad, 74. “I’m going to get you right and send you back out there, not knowing what I was sending you back to. I found the missing link was I was not where my patients were, so I needed to get closer to where they were and understand what’s happening in my village.”

She realized the patients she came across during her time in formal medical settings had some access to free or affordable care. But simply having access wasn’t enough to guarantee high-quality care.  

So she set out to educate her community on how to become advocates of their health. Peters-Muhammad focused her efforts on wellness, not necessarily access.

“Health care was out there. It was not always the best, but health care was available,” Peters-Muhammad said. “I want to make it completely clear, it’s not an equitable system. But you’ve got to work with what you got and be your own self-advocate. We have to insist on quality care and not accept the okie-doke.”

Peters-Muhammad serves as the minister of health at her church where she, for example, sits with members and shows them what a lab result looks like. She’s the wellness consultant and community outreach nurse at Ashe Cultural Arts Center, where she teaches women, who are often the primary caretakers for their families, to remember to take care of themselves as well. 

Peters-Muhammad also works with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation, where she encourages musicians and culture bearers to get health care even when there are no symptoms of illness or sickness. She educates them about dental health. “You can’t blow a trumpet without teeth,” she says. And she is involved in the Safe Sounds initiative, a program focused on reducing noise-induced hearing disorders. “You can get earplugs made so you don’t lose your hearing.”

Peters-Muhammad said she also teaches people how to find the best doctor for them. She wants the community to feel empowered.

“My age group and my elders don’t feel comfortable questioning doctors or feeling that they have a right to understand,” Peters-Muhammad said. “I want to know how they [doctors] feel about preventative care. I want to know their response time. When am I going to get results from a lab? I want to know how long it takes a doctor to respond to a phone call. How do we work together on a wellness plan?”

Though she encourages community members to be self-advocates in their healthcare, Peters-Muhammad recognizes there are bigger factors outside their control that can determine what kind of health care they receive. For example, she wants to see a shift in insurance companies’ approach to healthcare where “they are no longer dictating wellness.”

“I’d like to see insurance companies have less power over our wellness agendas and that this country shift to a preventative health model, a more universal healthcare to take the power back from the insurance companies,” Peters-Muhammad said. “We need to understand that wellness is what we’re looking for, and that comes with a relationship with a team of healthcare providers, brothers and sisters in the community and a spiritual base, an anchor somewhere.”

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Lottie L. Joiner, assistant managing editor at Verite, is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience covering issues that impact underserved and marginalized communities. She...