smoking campaigns or early detection
things like breast self exams and looking
for the seven warning signals of cancer.
That's just where the money's been.
There's been a lot of pressure for researchers not to look at other kinds
of preventative measures.
ME: But the foundations will pay for
doctors who are treated like magicians.
SI: Right, you run in, and lie fixes it.
Medical people like to be thought of
ME: How do you differ from the mainstream? How did you get into medicine
in the first place?
SI: In my freshman year of college I
thought I'd like to be a doctor. I really
wasn't sure. I had never known any
physicians. My parents hadn't even
gone to college, much less to medical
school. I really didn't know anything
about medicine and my advisor, an English major, told me, "You don't want
to go into medicine. That's too hard.
It will ruin your life as a woman. You're
going to want a normal life. You'll
need time for yourself and your family,
to be a housewife."
I got furious. I said, I'll show him.
I'll go to medical school. That's how I
ended up. I was always interested in it.
At first I was interested in psychiatry. I
started a major in psychology, then
switched to basic sciences and ended
majoring in biology. But I always thought
medicine was an interesting pursuit.
During my years in medical school I
got really disillusioned and discovered
that people didn't go into medicine to
help other people. My whole idea had
been to be like Florence Nightingale, just
go out and take care of people. It seemed
ME: Where did you go to school?
SI: My medical school was in San
Diego. People were treated like experimental animals there. They were used
and abused and I really became disillusioned with the whole process. I was almost ready to quit school when I joined
a group called the San Diego Coalition
for Safety and Health. There were all
kinds of workers in the group. One
woman had been trying to get compensation for a back injury she got while
working as a waitress. There were construction people and a motley crew of
nurses and medical students. We would
meet and try to help workers with whatever technical skills we could muster.
In the meantime, they taught us
about the kind of hassles they faced on
the job. I found it fascinating, a field
of medicine I had never met in school.
ME: Isn't there any occupational health
training in medical school?
SI: My entire training in medical school
was with an orthopedist who saw a lot of
people who had job-related back injuries
or other job-related health problems. My
introduction to occupational diseases was
him telling me in clinic that any worker
that comes to you with job-related problems is malingering until proven otherwise. In fact, he gave everybody with
compensation forms a psychological test,
the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
You had to prove to him that you
weren't faking it. That was the sum total
of my training in occupational medicine,
other than doing the extra activity with
that other group.
We'd get together once a month and
talk about the kinds of problems these
people were facing in their workplaces. I
did a little reading and we did some
screening, some educational sessions, and
we passed out pamphlets on the problems
of shipworkers for example. It was a
whole process of learning one particular
field where I might be able to use my
skills and actually benefit someone.
You see, the major clientele of hospitals are elderly women. They're the
people who can afford to come sit in the
clinic and wait three hours to see somebody about their health problems. You
very seldom see active working people
there unless it's an emergency. So the
whole idea of reaching healthy people,
and trying to prevent them from getting
sick in the first place, really appealed to
ME: How did that lead to working for
SI: After medical school f went to the
Public Health school in Boston and got
some more training in occupational medicine. In Cambridge, we were concerned
with the problems of industrial pollution
coming into the community. The working
people turned around and said, "Hey,
you think this is bad—you should see
what I work with." So we started up this
whole other field, looking at particular
work problems. It was through the
School of Public Health in Boston that I
met Tony Mazzochi, the vice president of
He and the union arranged for some
people to go do some electives with
OCAW. I wanted to go to one myself but
I couldn't. So that's how I met Tony.
Last September I was in a complete panic
about not knowing what I was going to
do when I finished and I sent a letter to
an old friend in San Diego. I told her I
was going to be looking for a job. and she
must have told Tony—and that's how it
I find that workers tend to minimize problems they have. They say, well,
we think there's a problem here with
cancer, but don't more people die of
cancer anyway, because they're living
When you talk about the general
community, you're talking about people
who are more susceptible than workers.
Young children, infants, old people,
people already diseased are being exposed
to the same substances that make workers
sick—albeit at lower concentrations.
ME: Did you pick Houston to come to,
or were you sent here by the OCAW?
SI: Actually I chose to come. I picked
Houston because this is where the District
Union Director's office is and it's been
really helpful and supportive.
ME: Since Houston is so big, a lot of
people think they are far away from what
happens on the Gulf Freeway. Now
they're facing threats from the wind carrying benzenes—is their water being poisoned by the refineries' pollutants too?
SI: I discussed this at length with some
people from the Air Pollution Board. I
was very interested in the pollution in
and around the Ship Channel area and
how it was being monitored. The people
in the Air Pollution Board told me, and I
assume it was true, that the main concentration of pollution is around the Ship
But often, in the afternoons, there is
shift of wind that takes all the stuff from
down here and puts it up around in the
northern sections as well.
Pollution risks are even higher now
during the strike, since inexperienced personnel are running the refineries. In addition, we are talking about more than just
a basic health threat. We're talking about
communities as a whole and we're talking
about subsidizing companies who are doing all this polluting. You're talking about
health costs, you're talking about just
general clean-up costs that are borne by
the society but are racked up by companies who aren't forced to take responsibility.
ME: The strike by the OCAW may illustrate that. It came up over health issues,
SI: Well it's not totally helath issues
but our union does have a history of
being very interested in health issues.
Back in '73 there was a strike which concentrated totally on health and safety
issues. During that strike there was a coalition between environmental groups and
community health groups where lots of
different people got together and generated a lot of interest in their efforts to get
a safer work place. They understood that
the community around the refineries was
affected directly by the level of safety in
There are three strike issues now and
the whole conflict wasn't only about a
two-year contract. The main issue is dental and health care benefits, which they're
holding out for now. But in addition
there are also wage and vacation issues.
They started out by asking for full
medical coverage but have negotiated
down to much less than that. What I
would really like is for the union to get
enough for me to go and work for them,
to subsidize me.
ME: What are you doing out there anyway?
SI: Basically I'm helping the workers
define their problems and consulting with
them on a medical basis. I would ultimately like to provide direct medical services to the workers. That is, a workers'
clinic where the workers hire and fire the
doctors and medical personnel—a medical
service where they can raise issues and
questions about job-related health problems without the fear of losing their job
or getting transferred to another job.
ME: Do the workers feel like you're not
a real doctor? Do they think you're a
SI: When I first started I used to get a
lot of questions: are you real, where did
you come from? Now I think they respect the fact that I had a certain amount
of training, that I'm willing to work with
them and their problems and to speak to
the locals. I've been in some places where
people told me it was the first time a
physician ever set foot inside a union hall.
For many of them it's the first time they
ever had someone with professional training at their beck and call. I think it's good.
It's a new experience for them.
ME: Do you think it will change their
view of doctors?
SI: There is a lot of distrust of doctors
and it has a long history behind it. I don't
think that will change much. They may
become aware of the potential of what
might be in for them in medicine, especially if they have some power and control
I would ultimately like to see a union-
and worker-controlled medical system
where the doctor's responsibility is in fact
to the patients and not to some company
In Cambridge, I started a clinic like
that when I was in training. I provided a
service for workers to get assessed for
possible job-related problems. But again
that was a clinic run by a hospital and we
had to charge for it. Although we had a
large clientele we were limited to the kind
of people who could pay for it. And if
you find anything it's damn expensive. I
am talking about hundreds of thousands
of dollars for evaluation, accurate evaluation.
ME: Would you like to run a free clinic?
SI: The medical problems in this country are tremendous and when you provide
services in a free clinic, you find all kinds
I learned that whenever you look at
medical problems, you always have to
look at the broader picture as well, at society as a whole. People have nutritional
problems, housing problems. I worked in
a free clinic and found people who would
come to the clinic and not have enough
money to buy the medicine you prescribed. A workers' clinic is a whole different thing. The workers would control
their own medical care. It's a different
philosophy. I think this is only possible
ME: Well, are the sands of time running
out for unions?
SI: In Texas? There's a lot of sand . . .
ME: It's been a right-to-work state.
The Gulf Coast is beginning to catch up and ever
SI: Yes, there's a problem with that.
The general public's view of the union is
that they're like corrupt politicians. L.G.
Moore and Brilab, things like that always
get a lot of press. The good things unions
do, like working for health and safety
issues which affect members and the
whole town as well, never gets in. Unions
support blood drives, churches and that
sort of thing but never get the press for it.
The image of the union is bad, especially
in a town like this where companies are
ME: What's the union representation
elsewhere in the state?
SI: We have a lot of small groups in
West Texas. Locals are everywhere but
they're mostly small.
ME: How do these locals survive if the
company is anti-union? Do they go along
to get along?
SI: We do sit across the table from
management. We may cooperate, but we
are across the table. We have fairly strong
union locals working for better safety and
a better life out there.
ME: You have a double stigma, I mean
not only as a union member but also as a
woman. Are you talking union blues, is
the union a good boss?
SI: I love working for the union. There
exceed New Jersey as a big cancer center. Petrochemical pollution in the air has caused this increased danger." - Sharon Itaya
are no better people as far as I am concerned. But it is predominantly male, 95
percent down here, and that affects leadership. Being a woman and working for
the union has broadened my perspective
on what medicine is. It's a lot more than
taking care of people when they are sick,
or just monitoring diseases as I did in my
medical training years.
ME: What are some of the incidents with
the strike involving safety and health?
SI: Well, these are just some that happened in this area in the last month. Last
February 6 there was a sulfur dioxide
(S02) leak attributed to Stauffer Chemical. It was contributed to by Charter Oil,
which, according to newspapers, had a
simultaneous leak, a problem with a fuel
converter. S02 is an irritant which causes
respiratory problems. At high levels it
On February 12, there was a fire at the
Union 76 Refinery near Nederland, Texas,
in which one man was fatally injured, another burned. On the same day, an explosion and fire at Amoco. Texas City,
killed two men. Then there was a fire,
February 18, at Arco, Houston, with no
ME: Could you tell me about yourself?
SI: Well, I was raised in a small town in
California, Stockton, which is in the central valley. It is the home of Maxine . . .
Maxine who wrote Woman Warrior. It's
the only thing that it's famous for. My
dad was a barber. He lost his shop when
there was this huge redevelopment so he
went back to school. My mom started
going back to school when I was in kindergarten. She became a school teacher.
My dad also became a teacher later. I
went to Radcliffe College in Boston. That
was in the 60s and early 70s.
ME: Boston was lively then.
SI: Then there were anti-war marches,
building occupations. And classes. I graduated and went to medical school in San
Diego. I took part in a lot of groups, and
in the feminist movement when I was in
medical school. It was part and parcel of
the whole unrest that led to the anti-war
movement and other movements. It came
out almost simultaneously. It was a real
inspiration to me in medical school to
think that a lot of women who had gone
before me had tried to get into the professions, tried to get into medical school and
that that was the reason I got in. I was
fortunate to be there at the time. There
had been so many that had tried to get in
and had been kept out.
The women in medical school were
very aware of that as we tried to assure
administrators that we weren't going to
run out and get pregnant and drop out of
medical school. We felt we had a legacy
from the generations.
ME: Was it a lasting breakthrough? Do
medical schools still admit a quota of
SI: I haven't been directly in touch
with my school but I hear that 25 percent
of the students now are regularly women.
But you still don't see many women in
positions of leadership.
One thing that I worry about is that a
lot ot women get in and seem to take for
granted all the struggles that got them
there. They identify closely with the male
When I was in school ...
ME: Back in the golden days.
SI: Back in the good old days, we had a
fairly strong woman's group. We worked
very hard to educate our colleagues about
their attitudes toward sexism and what
they did to their patients. I met women,
patients, who had no idea of birth control
and their daughters didn't either. When
you got pregnant and couldn't afford it,
you had to get an abortion and that's all
there was to it. Most of the medical students were racist as well as sexist anyway,
they would talk of the patients as an Ml
or OYOYOY (/// to indicate Hispanic
women in labor and OYOYOY to indicate Jewish women).
ME: Have you visited our splendid Texas
SI: Yes, I've been in and out trying to
find support for my worker's clinic idea.
From what I've seen, it is white . . . male
... upper middle class . ..
I've had a few run-ins with the company and the company doctors. I met
with company-hired doctors and spoke
with them about workers' health problems. They agree when we cite a problem
but then nothing is done because medical
decisions are compromised between
My parents worry about me here. The
only thing that got out about the strike
was that some foreman in Louisiana got
of fed. They tell me to lock my door behind me.
ME: Well what things about Texas jarred
your sensibilities? Anything?
SI: You should have talked to me a few
months ago about it. I used to rant and
rave. Now I'm getting used to it.
Morris Edelson is a general assignment reporter for the New York Times.