If CNN Anchor Fredricka Whitfield had not been persistent about asking her doctors for help, she may not have been alive to speak at Howard University on Tuesday. A few years ago when she started feeling sick, she went to a doctor and they told her she was fine.
She was not convinced she told attendees of Howard’s 2012 Health Symposium, which brought health experts and advocates to the Blackburn Center to discuss the discrepancy of proper health care treatment, access and environmental education among underserved people of color in America.
She said she was gaining weight, feeling increasingly lethargic, when she went to the doctor he still said, “Everything’s okay.”
But everything was not okay she said, “I had to really become that monster patient and say ‘I’m demanding that more be done.’ I demanded that I get every test executed and every scan done.”
Equipped with insurance, access to healthcare and a desire for answers, Whitfield avoided a serious medical complication that could have led to further sickness or death. After all of her doctor’s visits and tests she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor.
Many people in Ward 8 share a similar story as Whitfield: they are burdened by unknown ailments, and unsure of how to cure them. However, with a poverty rate of 35 percent, many lack insurance and are unable to fight for a solution, according to the Urban Institute.
The speakers at the last discussion of the day were: Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bradford Grant Ph.D, Professor Angel F. Clarens of the university’s architecture department, and research student Aarika Puckett presented their findings on how environmental issues play a key role in health inequalities in low-income neighborhoods.
“You’ve heard of ‘sick building syndrome’, blight and environmental conditions that cause health problems,” Grant said. “There are many conditions that we are exploring as it relates on how to produce a healthy sustainable environment for our activities for our health and lives.”
Sick building syndrome is describe as a situation in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, according to the EPA.
In 2006, Professor Clarens demonstrated the power that changing the “brick and mortar” environment people live in can affect their health. He assisted in revamping an apartment building in the Langston Lane area of Southeast, which had been declared a high crime area by the attorney general.
Partnering with a nonprofit organization he assisted in the development of site strategies such as creating a gated communities to increase the level of safety, a play ground and rental office to establish a presence in the neighborhood. They also added large bay windows and introduce color to the building so the residents units see up and down the street, which they thought would help community moral. Clarens said that it was important that the resident felt they had ownership in the community or they would not embrace and their new environment.
“The nonprofit has hired a full time social worker and she has made miracles a transformation she takes care of children makes sure they have a good breakfast, they go to school, come back to work and little by little over the last three years she’s changing little by little the culture that exists in the community. Then making all of these physical improvements worthwhile,” he said.
Following the presentation, Brian Smedley Ph.D, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Mohammed Akhter Ph.D, director of the DC Department of Health discussed the solutions needed to make district residents healthy.
One of their main concerns with health care involved finding solutions to health disparities, such as the scarcity of healthy foods in underprivileged neighborhoods, which cause unhealthy diets.
Akhter said that the Department of Health is pushing to change food deserts in low-income communities.
“We must help change the environments by taking the available park land that’s owned by the city to grow vegetables and fruits for the community,” Akhter said. “Additionally, we have an agreement that is being pursued with the all DC Public School system that guarantees great land be open to the community to start gardens.”
In an effort to stop unhealthy lifestyles during child hood Akhter said when a child shows up with their parent to the doctor they should be given a prescription for their diet, exercise and direction to the nearest safe-walking area.
A concern that Akhter addressed was that generations of underprivileged people are isolated from current awareness of health care because of trepidation, which motivates ‘the need to connect’.
“The people who need the help the most do not come out,” Akhter said. “One of the programs that we are initiating now is working with churches, doing home visits to become familiar with people on welfare and encourage them to go to the health clients.”
Smedley agreed with Akhter’s initiative saying he loved this example of the grassroots efforts to address community needs because they are critically important.
“In the Affordable Care Act, trained nurses are to do home visitation, but how about we have our elders and community leaders come to provide that common sense wisdom that is needed to empower people to take charge of their lives, Smedley said.
Jabari Zakiya, a lifelong resident of D.C. said he agrees that the community needs help in order to find a solution, “If the social body is past the point of resurrection it will only exacerbate the [situation]. Medicine doesn’t cure the body, it [helps alleviate] the sickness only the body can cure itself.”