They are two women from very different worlds, nurses who have succeeded despite discrimination, dislocation and other challenges. Over the years, they have dedicated their lives to fighting cancer, helping to save thousands of lives. They are exceptional, dedicated and effective: Debbie Chatman Bryant, caring for the underserved in the Low Country of South Carolina, and Ifeanyi Anne Nwabukwu, helping African women in our nation’s capital.
Both Nwabukwu and Bryant were honored recently as Community Health Leaders, a national award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that recognizes individuals who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Every year as the awardees are named, I am struck by their stories and how much their personal struggles and adversities have informed their work. I wonder about what sustained them along the way, where they drew strength and how they recovered from setbacks. I marvel at the impact they continue to have. This year’s leaders are no exception.
Bryant grew up in South Carolina toward the end of segregation. As the only African American child in her elementary school classroom, she remembers being ignored by teachers and labeled a slow learner. She finished high school and started college, but it wasn’t until much later in her life that she decided to become a nurse. She ultimately earned a doctorate in nursing.
Today, Bryant directs the Hollings Cancer Center Outreach Services Program at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The program focuses on disparities in cancer rates and care among a largely poor, rural population. Bryant began her work there after seeing how fear, lack of insurance and distrust in the health system kept many people from seeking help—allowing their cancer to spread.
“One of the biggest challenges we faced in treating low-income or uninsured patients was that even if we did manage to diagnose them in time, they would not come back for treatment,” she says. “We needed to create a system [that] patients would trust.”
Bryant used a mobile screening van to link Hollings to the region’s community health centers and to offer care in areas where there were very few or no providers. In five years, the number of mobile screenings increased more than 50 percent. And if tests revealed an abnormality, Bryant connected patients with someone who made sure they made follow-up appointments. “If not, we literally drove to their house and knocked on their door,” she recalls.
More than 500 miles to the north, Nwabukwu also has been confronting patients’ fears of the health care system. But with the immigrant women who are her patients, she has dealt with cultural barriers and fears of deportation, too.
Nwabukwu is an immigrant herself. She came to the United States from Nigeria and obtained a nursing degree from Howard University. She then worked in hospitals in the Washington area. But after losing her mother and then her best friend to breast cancer, she focused on African immigrant women’s sharply higher rates of cancer. Not only are they diagnosed with breast cancer younger—often before they turn 40—they are more likely to die from it than African American and White women.
In 2004, Nwabukwu founded the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association. The Silver Spring, Maryland-based organization works to eliminate disparities in cancer awareness, prevention and treatment for Africans in Washington as well as the neighboring Maryland suburbs.
“The stigma around breast cancer is so deep it has led to poor prognosis, and so there’s a need to educate African immigrants about cancer and the resources available to them,” explains Nwabukwu.
At one time, immigrants had to provide a Social Security number and indicate their immigration status to receive care. Nwabukwu met with state and county officials to change the requirements and then worked to educate the community. She encouraged local leaders to talk about breast cancer and published educational materials in seven African languages. To date, she has reached more than 7,000 women and provided free screenings to more than 600.
“We don’t know why African women get breast cancer at much younger ages,” she says. “But it presents a whole new set of challenges when you have just had a baby and must fight breast cancer.” Her volunteers provide translators, schedule doctor’s appointments, drive women to their appointments and sometimes even provide babysitting.
Impressive? Yes. Inspiring? Absolutely. The accomplishments of all 10 Community Health Leaders are simply extraordinary: Whether they’re saving women from cancer, connecting refugees to mental health care, supporting rural, isolated seniors or opening free health clinics for the working poor, these individuals lead by example. They deserve recognition and appreciation for having the courage to take bold, effective action to improve the health and the lives of others
Linda Wright Moore is a Senior Communications Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.