Tito Izard knew exactly what he wanted to do at a young age.
His mother was the “neighborhood mom.” Kids from all around the block would come to their house, some seeking a safe place, others seeking advice.
“Sometimes the people who other people had already written off in society, what people would call like the ‘baddest’ kids in the neighborhood and troublemakers … would be in our home crying, talking about their life experience,” Izard said.
Seeing this made him become interested in the plight of others.
“I was blessed to be able to observe how my mother interacted with the community and see how much a lady without a college degree could influence so many different people,” Izard said.
Along with his two brothers, Izard was a first-generation college student. He graduated from Marquette University with an undergraduate degree in social work and then went to medical school, an uncommon path for a physician.
Now, Izard, 51, goes to work each day about a mile from where he grew up on Port Washington Road and Capitol Drive. To hear him tell it, it’s a blessing to do what he does.
Izard serves as president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee Health Services, a group of clinics that include the MLK Heritage Health Center on King Drive and the Isaac Coggs Heritage Health Center, 8200 W. Silver Spring Drive.
Working at the MLK Heritage Health Center is a constant reminder of where he came from and the need for these services in the community, he said. Based in Harambee, the clinic is community focused. Residents from the neighborhood sit on the clinic’s board.
Izard works hard to ensure that his patients have their needs met. In his doctor’s role, this may mean spending extra time to explain things they don’t understand. In his work as an executive, this may mean connecting them to resources to help them improve their lives.
In both cases, it requires a lot of relationship-building.
“I look at it from a holistic perspective,” he said. “It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the most connected.”
Izard believes health has five “domains”: the physical, the psychological, the social, the financial and the spiritual. If any of these domains is lacking or missing something, it can manifest in a way that affects someone’s health.
For example, financial problems during the pandemic could completely disrupt someone’s health just as much as the coronavirus itself. People who are out of work, whether temporary or permanent, get exposed to other problems.
“Those families were wiped out,” Izard said. “And now it’s affected their health, affected their spirit, affected their mental health. That one thing, which was not being able to have a paycheck for two weeks, threw off all their other domains.”
He said the clinic sees a high volume of underinsured patients and works with them on a case-by-case basis.
The coronavirus pandemic laid systemic problems bare, he said. He’s worked to help get vaccines into the community at various events, including the recent Juneteenth celebration.
Izard expresses frustration when he speaks about the lack of a plan to reach communities of color in Milwaukee during the pandemic. He didn’t feel enough was done to get information or supplies into underserved areas of the city.
“Anyone who understood urban underserved populations could have written you the ending,” Izard said.
But the frustration goes deeper than the pandemic. Izard said many racial health disparities are unaddressed or simply ignored, either because of a lack of funding or “malignant indifference.” Malignant indifference is when someone is aware of these problems and in a position to do something and chooses not to in order to maintain the status quo.
As a proponent for change, Izard doesn’t always feel heard.
“Sometimes you feel like Don Quixote,” Izard said. “You’re the crazy guy tilting at windmills.”
In his own way, Izard continues to try to address the lack of access in his own community. For one thing, residents in the 53212 ZIP code and beyond have a place where they can seek care from those that look like them.
Tito Izard’s brother, Kevin, a family practice doctor with national health care organization Everside Health, said that he didn’t meet his first Black doctor until he was in college. Now, 85% of the employees at Tito Izard’s clinics are Black, reflecting about the same percentage of Black patients that walk through their front doors.
Joy Tapper, executive director of the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, a collaborative aimed at improving health disparities, said Izard has done a remarkable job recruiting a diverse workforce.
In working with the partnership, Milwaukee Health Services has participated in its Emergency Department to Medical Home program, which seeks to connect patients at emergency departments with primary care options at community health centers.
Tapper also said she’s learned much from Izard.
“Tito’s been one of my best teachers on health disparities and equity,” Tapper said.
Izard said the clinics have spent the last 10 years in a “crisis” financially but have survived with the support of the community.
“You have to sacrifice to continue to do this,” Kevin Izard explained. “You can get frustrated because you’re fighting the system every day. It can take a toll on you. That’s why it’s got to be a calling … it’s got to be a ministry.”
His brother sees it as a journey.
“The journey may have a destination, but you don’t necessarily know when it’s over,” Izard said. “You have to be obedient to the journey and not just completely focused on the end result because you can miss all the learning and opportunity that happens along the journey.”