In this episode, producers and longtime friends Juliann Bi and Taylor Phillips reflect on the factors that spurred Taylor’s journey to becoming a doctor. Some of these factors include Taylor's family history and her family member’s experiences of place, race, occupation, and disease. Together, Juliann and Taylor explore Taylor’s relationship from the military to Monsanto to articulate the long-term costs of living in socioeconomic precocity and toxic environments.
JULIANN BI: This is Metastasis. I'm your host, Juliann Bi.
In this episode, I'm joined by one of my closest friends, Taylor Phillips.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Well, I wanted to be like you and like you were super popular, but I was also very confused because I was like, you were definitely like, you were a little too good at King Cup to be at a Christian fellowship.
JB: I don't even remember which game that is…[Fade]
Taylor is a current Neurology Research Specialist at the University of Pennsylvania and an aspiring doctor.
The word “doctor” invokes many different ideas and images. For some, it's the promise of a healthy life for years to come. For others, it's a back-loaded payoff for years of hard work, all cloaked in the prestige of a pristine, white coat.
For Taylor, the word unfolds as a story - one that begins with a military family, a small town in Georgia, and one unfriendly neighbor.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: I was born in Temple, Texas. My dad was stationed in Fort Hood, so that's why I was born in Texas. Um, and then when I was…[Fade]
JB: Something you need to know about Taylor: She comes from a long line of vets, the ones in her most immediate family currently being her dad and one of her two brothers. Because of this, she has lived in more places before the age of 18 than some of us have ever vacationed.
Taylor has moved almost everywhere below the Sunbelt - from Texas to Tennessee, to Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, back to Georgia, and finally, back to Texas, in Houston, where we both met at Rice.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Yeah. I've only lived here like six years out of my life and it's not ever been consecutively. And I don't really have a lot of connections here.
It's familiar, but I don't really know anyone here, I don't have family here.
JB: Yeah, but then you see people on the outside, like us, we see your life, and we're just like, oh, it must've been so interesting, you know, experiencing different communities like that. And of course, it's very different for you.
You've mentioned before that the idea, the concept of home is very nomadic for you. Whereas for me, even though I've lived in Houston for the past five years, if you asked me where home is, I'm always going to say St. Louis.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Yeah. And I think as I've gotten older, I've decided home is just where my mama is.
I look at you guys on the outside who have been able to stay in a place for a long time and you guys are like, oh yeah, I've known so-and-so since middle school. And I’ve known blah, blah, blah, since blah. But really in reality, Rice is the longest time I’ve spent in one place.
JB: Yeah. And you mentioned home is where mom is. But your dad is the reason why y'all moved around so much, right?
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: So, my dad joined the military in college? Yeah. And so, he went to University of Alabama and I think he joined through an ROTC scholarship.
And that's pretty much how all of anyone who came out of Alabama or Anniston really, has joined or has gone to college. And all throughout college, he was in the reserves. And then, once my mom was pregnant with my sister, that's when he became active duty. And so that's when all of the moving around and everything started.
JB: Taylor's dad isn't the only vet in the family. There's her brother, too, and at one point, she almost joined as well. As she reflects on the way the military has influenced her family’s sense of place and home, the military also becomes an influencer of their financial welfare and their health history.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Here's where it gets heated. ‘Cause I have a lot of feelings about it - and a very complicated relationship I have with the military. In high school, if you grow up in a low-income community or going to a school where there's a high population of African-Americans or Latino students, then there's going to be a military recruiter knocking down your door junior year, shoving the ASVAB book in your face, telling you to take this ASVAB test.
Oh, you’ll take a personality test. Oh, you'd make a great officer in the military, or you'd make a great, so-and-so.
JB: While the military had offered Taylor's family plenty of benefits in terms of finances and health insurance, there was still a cost.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: After living as a military child, you start to see a lot of the cons of being in the military. And I really started to see that around 10 years old, 2009. That's when my dad got back from Kuwait.
And when he came back, he was changed. He had PTSD. One time, I had woken him up because I had a scary dream and I had scared him so bad that he put me in a choke hold. And so it's like, you don't really consider the things that stay with you besides that $50,000 check once you leave the military, or as you're going through the military.
JB: Yeah. And it's especially like when you're saying how they start you off, you know, young, you go in for 20 years or so. You don't come back without certain strings attached, whether it's having PTSD, literally giving an arm and a leg, or something like that.
And that eerie image of just the recruiter knocking on doors of these kids who are 16, 17? I mean, I’d just gotten my drivers license.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Yeah. And when these kids sign up for the military, they can't even legally vote. And so that's like the wildest part of, you know, they don't know what they're signing up for, but at the time, it's the best option they have, and it's really the only option they have.
But it's also like on the other hand, because my dad joined the military, my siblings and I are the only people in our family who ever went to college and ever graduated college. And we're fortunate with that. We have health insurance. We are healthy. And we have so many different privileges that they don't have.
JB: Taylor's relationship with the military is just one facet of her story on place, environment, family, and health. Next, we dig a little deeper into one particular town her family moved to that greatly impacted their health and that of their fellow residents: Anniston.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Anniston is my family's hometown.
I think my dad's family has been in Anniston for a while, But my mother's great grandparents were the first of their family to have ever lived in Anniston. And they were originally from Georgia. And yeah, Anniston is just a really interesting city because it's also at the heart of a lot of American Civil Rights movements.
JB: Beyond being the town of Taylor's immediate family's residence for a few years, Anniston is the geographical root of much of her extended family tree. It is also where Taylor first saw the manifestations of social justice and the environmental determinants of health.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: For us, it seems like civil rights is so far in history, but this was like my parents’ and my grandparents’ lives. Like, my grandparents were on segregated buses, went to segregated schools. It was not that long ago. And my mom and dad, their high school and middle schools were like just freshly desegregated, still had the black and white water fountains.
Their birth certificates still say Negro. But, um, Anniston today is a ghost town, really. It's like, a lot of crime is going on. Not many people there. I think it's difficult for me to also call Anniston home. Just because I feel like I personally don't have a connection with it.
JB: Well, I guess kind of goes back to what we were talking about in terms of what means home to you. But I guess like, I think you mentioned you've only, you were only there when you were, three or four?
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: I don’t know. I have like, really vague memories of living in Anniston, like the timeline, my nanny ran a red light, you know, we never let it go. Or like we would go out into the yard and pretend to be cheerleaders for the University of Alabama, a random homeless dog named Coco that we would always feed.
It's just like, things like that, that we still have that I think of Anniston and that I try to keep in my heart.
JB: I think in terms of what I remember from my childhood, I call like, the four to five-year-old period the rosy memory period. Everything you remember from that time, it's just like, so sunny, like even the rain is sunny because like, you were probably curled up inside with your parents or siblings or something.
Definitely glad that it (Anniston) holds, you know, some of those good memories for you. Um, but I do think, since reading your article about Monsanto, that it seems - so your article seems to paint a very different picture of Anniston.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Really, Anniston hasn't changed that much, but it's just the fact that I'm no longer protected from the things that were going on in Anniston.
It wasn't until like my sophomore year of college that I had any idea about what the Monsanto thing actually was about. Like my mom and her siblings would always make jokes about, “Oh, we're radioactive. Oh, we glow green.” It was like, what are you guys talking about? Like what? And then, she was like, “Oh, you never heard of Monsanto?”
And so she showed me this movie called Erin Brockovich or something. And she's like, “this is basically what happened to us.”
JB: Founded in 1901, Monsanto is an agrichemical and biotech company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown. In popular news, Monsanto is often associated with GMOs, but has had a history of high profile lawsuits dealing with pollution and public health issues in various countries. Domestically, these scandals have touched towns like Anniston.
Starting in the 70s, Monsanto had released tons of PCBs into Anniston's local waterways and open landfills, culminating in a 2002 lawsuit.
JB: And it's really interesting that your paper is about Monsanto. Cause I actually live, you know, like a 5K run away from Monsanto headquarters. Like I used to, you know, drive to my friends’ houses that were on Olive Boulevard. And I would always pass by, you know, Monsanto Drive. We also had a neighbor who used to work at Monsanto, and I would always hear my parents talking about, GMOs and everything.
And my mom was like that crazy lady that bought everything organic. The minute we had, you know, more than average discretionary income. She was just like, “Yeah, I don't want you to get like tumors and, uh, I don't want you to be like dumb when you grow up.”
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's definitely, I mean, cause you told me this a few minutes ago and I was just like, oh my God, Monsanto's everywhere!
And especially, just like the thought of having a Monsanto Boulevard, or Monsanto Road? It's unsettling. It's like Monsanto has been responsible for the deaths and sicknesses of so many people. It's basically equivalent to like, oh yes: Tuskegee Experiment Boulevard, Slavery Avenue. It's so weird.
And so, I don't know. It makes sense when you think of it as a corporation, but everything that was going on in the background is definitely uncomfortable. But I also find it interesting how, I guess our parents' generation has known about Monsanto and like DDTs and everything that's going on. And how it still seems like every 10 years or so, there's another scandal - hopefully not after Bayer has bought them out.
JB: Yeah. And it's interesting, like if you look through the, you know, the history of Monsanto. Your paper focused mainly on the PCB dumps in Anniston, but it's also like you look through the history of Monsanto and it's pretty, yeah. It's pretty dark. Like AstroTurf has been disputed, um, DDT was a huge thing in the 1960s and 1970s.
And I feel like when you're in the agri-biotech industry, it's inevitable that you're going to come across a lot of these environmental issues, these ethics issues, these health issues.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: I basically grew up in the hospital. I was always hospitalized when, especially when I was living in Anniston.
So now that I think about it, I was always around doctors and I was, and I still am, the annoying “why” child. And so whenever they were like, Taylor, you're sick. Why? Because your lungs aren't working. Why? And so they would have to like, explain it in an extremely nuanced way.
And so when my grandma was diagnosed with cancer, my mom sat me down and explained everything that was going on: what chemotherapy is, what radiation therapy is, what does metastasis mean. And that's just basically how I've been raised. My mom recognized that I was a very curious mind.
And I grew up--my brother has cerebral palsy and he has to use a wheelchair, and I don't think I realized that not everyone has a family member in a wheelchair until I was a little older, after Pre-K. And so I don't think I started asking about my brother's illness until probably after my grandma [died] like, “Oh, why is he in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy?” But I also started just researching on my own about all the different illnesses I had or illnesses in my family.
And this is when I'm like four and five years old. So I was a really weird kid.
TAYLOR PHILLIPS: I think it's especially important to occupy these spaces as a woman, but also a black woman, just because it's so easy for it to be flippantly: “Oh, you're sick. You have this.” And you know, of course you have this because you're Black, you're more likely to be at risk of this, no surprises at all, but no one ever asked the why.
With the story that I have told about my family in terms of Anniston and Monsanto, it has taught me the importance of a patient's history, not just their family diseases, but the core root of those diseases. Where did you live? How did you live? What was your diet like? Why was your diet like this? Did you have access to these foods? Because what's the point? You know, treating high blood pressure or diabetes by saying,”just eat healthier” if they go home and they live in a food desert. And so you can't really solve these issues without getting to the core root of them. And I think that's why we need to actually connect a lot of patients with resources.
JB: For the past three years or so, Taylor has been one of the most steadfast friends in my life. Her determination to bring the care she displays for all of her close family and friends to her future patients is apparent. Throughout our conversation, we've revealed that the meaning of being a doctor, for her, runs deep in the roots of her family history. It occupies an intimate cross-section of many different planes in her life: illness, place, duty, bonds, and the simple curiosity of a child for her surroundings.
And yet, Taylor's challenging journey through the rest of her medical career has just begun.
JB: For me, it is incredibly comforting to know that there are doctors who consider their patient beyond the illness - doctors who've factored in the family, the circumstances, and perhaps, the small towns that shaped them.
Phillips, Taylor. "Monsanto Poisoned Us: The open secret of America’s industrial monopoly." 2020 https://tinyurl.com/rmytsr68