For The Soul: Nashville’s ‘Ghost Surgeon’ and His Vision for Affordable Health Care

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photo: Eric England

This story is a part of our For the Soul series: a collaboration between the Nashville Scene and local culture website Urbaanite that uncovers local gems in Nashville.

The Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center has served uninsured Nashvillians for half a century and counting. 

The late Dr. Matthew Walker Sr., known as “The Ghost Surgeon,” created a legacy of service in Nashville, providing complicated surgical procedures in the face of racism to create one of the city’s indispensable health care institutions. The Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center, born out of Meharry Medical College, was established to provide access to health services to  Nashville’s underinsured and uninsured communities — and continues to do so, half a century later. 

Urbaanite sat down with several people within the MWCHC family to learn more about the center’s founder, history and legacy. It was an honor to speak with Dr. Matthew Walker III just a month before his passing and hear him share with such pride about his grandfather’s vision and legacy. 

Dr. Matthew Walker III

As the saying goes, where there is vision, there is provision. This is exactly what guided Walker Sr. to move forward with the vision over 60 years ago, when he began to seek funding to start the center. Founded as the Meharry Neighborhood Health Center in 1968, the center was a beacon for families in North Nashville during a time when African Americans, including certified doctor and surgeon Walker Sr., faced much adversity. Known as “The Ghost Surgeon” back in the ’50s and ’60s, Walker Sr., would actually have to perform surgeries on white patients in secret. White Americans did not want African American doctors working on them even if they were considered the best like Walker was in the field of cancer-removing thyroid surgeries. His grandson, Walker III, remembered, “He would go into operating rooms to perform a very difficult thyroid surgery, and before the patients were awakened, he had to be out of the room. … I heard the story growing up and I’ve had the story cross-confirmed many times by others.”

The center is now located in the heart of North Nashville on the corner of Jefferson Street and 14th Avenue North, and cares for over 17,000 people annually. “We always wanted to stay close to Meharry as it has always been where African American families resided,” says development manager Cathy Hunt. “We’ve always provided health care for those with and without insurance, but the focus was really on those having trouble getting insurance or were underinsured. It’s fortunate that we’re here, but it’s also sad that we’re still here and that so many people are still having trouble getting insurance.”

The center has personal significance for many across the city, including CEO Katina Beard. “The center is special to me because we have such a rich history founded at the height of the civil rights era,” says Beard. “We continue to focus on serving our community with hands and hearts of compassion.” MWCHC has maintained a mission of service and become a mainstay as Nashvillians navigate their lives and health in the midst of a pandemic. The center was on the frontlines providing COVID testing, and now staff members are administering vaccines both on-site and in the community. In addition, MWCHC is a full-service health care hub offering medical services and programming for all. “We aim to take care of people from the beginning of life,” says Hunt, “so we have pediatricians, lab services, dietary planning, all the way up to our family practice physicians. We help with getting older and the common issues that come along with aging like high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma — all very common in the African American community.” 

Katina Beard at the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center

MWCHC has also found a unique, growing segment of patients in entrepreneurs, for whom finding affordable health insurance can be daunting. I remember when I first stepped out into entrepreneurship many years ago, I utilized MWCHC services and always had a great experience. “It’s the exact same quality you would expect at any other facility,” says MWCHC spokesperson Matthew Fox. “Our mission is to ensure patients feel welcome and know that they’re safe. We get a lot of people who may feel a bit hesitant to visit doctors, but they leave feeling truly cared for.”

Listening to Dr. Matthew Walker III share such an incredible story brought to life the resilience of African American medical professionals and provided me with a new-found respect for them. Dr. Walker Sr. truly served his calling.

As Walker III ended our conversation, he reflected on his own family legacy in medicine. “Our family legacy was built on my grandfather’s belief in teaching as many people that you can get your hands on because you want to create a village of excellence. He would always say, ‘Let excellence be your baseline.’ ”

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