Few physicians have their fingers on the pulse of a community or a culture in quite the same way that Dr. Bill Releford does. He established the Diabetic Foot Institute, a facility dedicated exclusively to the reduction of diabetes-related amputations in high-risk populations. Releford radiates compassion and uncommon caring—virtues that he doesn’t reserve for his patients only. “I am committed to increasing knowledge and awareness for my people regarding the issues that affect us most. Obviously, I love my people and when they hurt I hurt too, regardless of where they may be, whether it’s Ghana, Nigeria or Haiti. When they’re in pain, I’m in pain as well,” he says emotionally. Releford determined that in approximately 70–85% of cases, lower extremity amputations were either recommended prematurely or should not have been recommended at all. His entire practice became and remains dedicated exclusively to diabetic limb salvage.
Releford treats his practice more like a ministry than a treatment facility. The objective is to cast a larger net rather than apply Band-Aids and write prescriptions. His is a mission devoted to eradicating diabetes and its related ills in the African American community. “I have made helping my people a part of my personal or professional ministry. As a ministry, you need to propagate your message and inspire people to do better by seeing the greatness in them that they may not appreciate in themselves. Looking at [health] in the form of a ministry let’s people know how serious you are about what you’re doing,” he explains.
Releford attributes his wisdom beyond his years to learning the life lessons so many elders along his path shared with him. As a child, he says he understood, thanks to the strong work ethic of his parents and grandparents, that fulfilling a destiny was the most powerful thing that a person can endeavor to do. He had the presence of mind and the sanctity of spirit to, without reservation, listen and absorb that mother wit from some of his older patients, whom he credits with encouraging him to fervently pursue his passion for healing. “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born,” he says, attributing the quote to his senior mentors.
Releford has for the most part been given to embracing causes larger than his personal interests and has wisely enlisted the help of another profession to elevate the health care dialogue, especially as it relates to diabetes—he’s formed a collaboration with barbers. The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program utilizes the African American tradition of barbershop debate to inform and educate patrons about the prevention and treatment of diabetes and high blood pressure. “We use an existing infrastructure that is already in the community. Barbers can be partners in delivering that message. There’s nothing more frustrating than to have knowledge and not have an outlet for that knowledge, so I have chosen elements to develop a national program where we go to barbershops throughout the country to discuss healthcare,” explains Releford.
Releford counsels that there’s a predefined hierarchy that dictates valuing people first. “I’ve been knocked down and gotten back up a whole lot of times. The best measure of a person’s ability is not their IQ, it’s AQ, or the Adversity Quotient. It’s critical that you get back up and take care. Sometimes we get knocked down so much we forget,” concludes Releford.