B. Waine Kong Biography
Poverty Taught Creativity, Began a New Life in the United States, Continued His Education
Chief executive officer, Association of Black Cardiologists
Throughout his life, B. Waine Kong has retained the good-natured sociability that he learned growing up in a small agricultural community in Jamaica. However, beneath his relaxed and likable personality, Kong has proved himself to be a dedicated and tireless worker. Whether earning a graduate degree by attending classes at night while working a full-time day job, or changing the face of health care by organizing blood pressure clinics in dozens of Maryland churches, Kong has quietly devoted his life to learning ways to improve the health of the African-American community. As chief executive officer of the Association of Black Cardiologists, Kong continues to work to increase the lifespan of black Americans, so that the multigenerational black community will include more and more grandparents and great-grandparents.
Basil Waine Kong was born in the tiny community of Woodlands, in St. Elizabeth Parish, or county, in southwestern Jamaica. His father, Chan Kong, had been one of many Chinese refugees who fled China after a Japanese invasion in the early 1940s. Chan Kong had experienced starvation, so he determined to make sure he would always have access to food. When he settled in Jamaica, he supported himself by opening a restaurant. He soon developed a relationship with a young woman named Violet McKenzie who worked as a cashier in his restaurant. The couple had two children, Basil Waine and his brother, Earl DeCarlton Kong.
Though they were teased a bit because they were the only half Chinese children in Woodlands, the Kong children suffered little real discrimination. Jamaica had been a British colony for many years. Not only British colonists, but slaves, traders, sailors, and other immigrants from all over the world had come to Jamaica, forcibly or voluntarily, giving the island population a rich racial mix.
Poverty Taught Creativity
Life in the little farming town of Woodlands was simple. The community of 500 people had no electricity, running water, newspaper, library, or even a radio. Even so, Kong's childhood was peaceful and happy. With little money or access to stores, the children of Woodlands made their own toys, using whatever scraps they could find to create marbles, slingshots, toy trucks, even bicycles made of wood. As a child, Kong played cricket and soccer, climbed trees, jumped rope, ran to the market, and ran to school. However, his walk to church with his grandmother was slow and dignified.
When Kong was four years old, his father abandoned the family. In order to support her children, Violet Kong left to seek work in the United States. For the next years, she worked as a domestic, taking care of other people's children to earn money to send back to her own family in Jamaica. While in the United States, she married Author Johnson and had two sons. The American dollars his mother sent to his grandmother allowed Kong's family a few luxuries beyond the modest community standard. Kong wore a wristwatch, shoes, and even had a "store-bought" bicycle, which was a source of great pride.
The general poverty of Woodlands extended to the community school, which could afford few books. Only the teacher had a book, and the class had to memorize the math problems, poetry, and history of England that she read to them. Learning was extremely hard under these circumstances, and, even as a teenager, Kong had difficulty reading, writing, and spelling.
The summer of his 14th year, Kong was sent to live with his uncle Cleve Allen, a veterinarian in Kingston, Jamaica's capitol city. Though there were many new sights and experiences in Kingston, the sight that amazed Kong the most was the library. Having grown up in a home where the only books were the Bible and a book of hymns, Kong was dazzled to see an entire room filled with books. He took down the first book that caught his eye, a science book about invertebrates, and read it. When he began to tell his uncle about all that he had learned from his reading, his uncle became very excited.
Began a New Life in the
Because Kong had had so little access to learning, no one had ever considered him intelligent. His family had supposed that he was best suited to become a farmer in Woodlands. However, when his uncle saw that he could not only read and understand, but that he had an interest and desire for learning, he contacted Kong's mother. Dr. Allen encouraged his sister-in-law to bring Kong to live with her and her new family in the United States. She agreed, and at age 15, Kong began a new life in Morristown, New Jersey.
When he arrived in the United States, Kong experienced yet another kind of culture shock. Americans could not understand his speech. Like most Jamaicans, he did not speak English, but the rhythmic patois of the island. Patois, sometimes called "pidgin" or "Creole" is a combination of English and French with various African and Native languages to form a unique language, particular to the place where the patois has evolved. Though some English speakers in the past have simply considered Jamaican patios to be incorrect English, many Jamaicans take pride in their language and see it as an important part of their Caribbean culture.
Determined to help her son enter his new society, Kong's mother immersed him in lessons. Every evening after school he studied language, reading, grammar, and piano. He even took swimming lessons, since, though he had grown up on a tropical island, living only 20 miles from the sea, he had rarely visited the beach and never learned to swim. Perhaps more than any of these lessons, however, Kong's skill at sports helped him to fit in at his new school. During his first year of high school, he earned seven varsity letters in cross-country running, wrestling, and track. He even set a track record for the school in the 400-meter race. Along with gaining him friendship and respect in high school, this athletic skill would also ensure him a higher education.
As graduation approached, Kong's high school counselor began to urge him to consider a carpentry job, since woodshop seemed to be his best subject. However, a recruiter from Simpson College in Iowa came to Morristown with scholarship money for good athletes. Simpson offered Kong $500 per semester, and, in 1963, Waine Kong, who everyone had thought would be a farmer all his life, went to college in the Midwest.
Continued His Education
Even with the scholarship money, Kong had to work his way through college. He worked as a dishwasher, a janitor, and a photographer for the school newspaper. As his college career progressed, he began to do more academic jobs, working as a student lecturer, a lab assistant in the biology department, and a research assistant in the sociology department. His cheerful, helpful attitude won him friends wherever he worked.
At the end of his first semester, he almost lost his scholarship money when his grade average fell below the required 2.0. However, while working as a custodian cleaning buildings, he had become friendly with the dean's secretary. Because she liked Kong, she told him that she would not show his grades to the dean, giving him a chance to bring his average up. He took her warning to heart, and by the time he graduated in 1967, he had earned A's in his last five courses. During his senior year, he had also married and started a family.
Kong majored in psychology and sociology. He put these social sciences to work, taking a job as a probation officer for the state of Maryland. While working full time supervising juvenile offenders, he attended graduate school classes in school guidance counseling in the evenings. After earning his masters degree from American University in 1970, he took a job as assistant professor at the University of the District of Columbia, teaching classes in such subjects as human growth and development, juvenile delinquency, and criminology.
However, Kong had neither finished his education nor found his life's work yet. He soon developed an interest in hypertension, especially among African Americans. Two of his relatives had recently died from strokes, a common and very dangerous effect of high blood pressure. As a psychologist, Kong began to wonder how an individual's state of mind and personality type contributed to high blood pressure. He began his studies at the University of Maryland, and had completed all the course work for his doctoral degree, but the university did not have doctors to supervise a thesis about hypertension. Kong's interest in the subject led him to Walden University, where physicians supervised his thesis work. Among them was Dr. Elijah Saunders, an African-American cardiologist and head of research at Baltimore's Providence Hospital.
Developed Hypertension Clinics
Though Kong's research work did not prove that personality type and psychological state were important factors in hypertension, he developed an interest in the heart health of black Americans that would guide the rest of his career. After earning his PhD, he returned to work at University of the District of Columbia for two years. In 1978 he took a sabbatical, or leave from work, to join Elijah Saunders in researching ways to combat high blood pressure among African Americans. It was during this time that Kong made a major contribution to public health, one that he would consider his major accomplishment.
In 1978 only trained doctors and nurses were permitted to take a patient's blood pressure, because such tests were considered medical procedures. During his work with Saunders, Kong got the idea that if volunteers could be trained to set up hypertension clinics in churches, they could not only check the blood pressure levels of church members but also educate them about the importance of continuing check-ups. Kong believed that trained community volunteers would prove to be far more effective at providing this personal attention than occasional visits from a visiting doctor.
During the next three years, Kong and Saunders got grants to set up clinics in 100 Maryland churches, training and certifying over 500 people as "Blood Pressure Measurement Specialists." These trainees learned to check the blood pressure of fellow church members, refer them to a doctor if necessary, and monitor their health. Most importantly, the Blood Pressure Measurement Specialists offered the support and encouragement needed for blood pressure control.
When Kong and Saunders realized that these church clinics did not reach many black men, they began training barbers to operate hypertension clinics in their barbershops. These church and barbershop blood pressure clinics marked a major change in the practice of medicine, with community members helping each other take responsibility for their own health care.
With the help of grant money from the American Heart Association, they also began a media campaign to educate African Americans about the warning signs of heart attack. They set up classes in public libraries to teach cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), a method for reviving people who have had a heart attack. Almost 10,000 people were certified in CPR through the program that Kong helped initiate.
Kong never returned to his teaching job. Instead, he had become committed to working in the field of public health, first through grants from pharmaceutical companies, the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, then through Providence Hospital and the Urban Cardiology Research Center. In 1986, he was offered the job of chief executive office of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC). The ABC had been formed in 1974, by 17 black physicians who wanted to work on improving the heart health of the African-American community. Heart diseases were responsible for 50 percent of the deaths among American blacks. The ABC intended to follow the model of modern dentistry, which had eliminated many dental problems with a three-fold program of public health, regular professional care, and personal health awareness. ABC developed and publicized a program of seven steps to good health, which it hoped would have a similar effect on the heart problems of many American blacks.
Pursued a Law Degree
The goals of the ABC fit perfectly with Kong's personal career goals, and he was happy in his new job. However, the easy-going man who had never considered himself a good student was not yet finished with his education. In 1986, he had married again. His wife Stephanie, a physician and managed care expert, encouraged Kong to follow yet another dream and enter law school. Sure that he was "too old" to get into law school, Kong took the entrance examinations and applied. To his own surprise, he was accepted at Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania. The next four years were a whirlwind of intensive study in law school, hard work as the new head of a national health organization, and moving several times as the family followed Stephanie Kong's career from Pennsylvania to California, Florida, and Georgia. Finally, Kong graduated from law school in 1990 and passed the Georgia bar exam. His eldest daughter, Jillian, attended law school at the same time.
Kong has continued to work as CEO of the ABC, managing a staff of 24, overseeing the creation of a new $10 million headquarters and conference center, and initiating research and community programs to further the organization's mission—to ensure that as many black children as possible get to know their grandparents.
Association of Black Cardiologists, www.abcardio.org (January 8, 2005)
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with B. Waine Kong on January 3, 2005.
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