11 Everyday Heroes Who Bring Healthcare to Those in Need
Photo: Jamie Hopper
The Refugee's Refugee
The calls flood in, often ten or 12 a day. Some callers speak fluent English; others, almost none. A mother of three with a kidney problem who hasn't urinated in 48 hours. A man whose terrible ear pain isn't responding to antibiotics. A woman puzzling over her mammogram and ultrasound results (she recognizes "malignancy" but not "low suspicion"). In each case, the need is urgent, and the refrain is the same: "Everyone said to call Dr. Mona."
Dr. Mona is Mona Megahed, MD, 39, an Atlanta-area pediatrician who's made it her second job to provide healthcare to the refugees around her, solving their medical problems herself when she can and getting creative when she can't. With a phone call here and an arm twist there, she finds the specialist—oral surgeon, internist, you name it—whose services are required and often finagles a discount to boot.
The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Megahed discovered her avocation in 2015, when she was living in New Jersey and attended a volunteer event at a local Islamic center. There she met 11 Syrian refugee families who told her about their high cholesterol, diabetes, hepatitis C, and more. It was a true aha moment: Megahed realized she could use her Arabic skills and her physician contacts to give the families medical care.
The demand for her fairy-godmothering was immediate and nonstop. And it only increased in 2016, when she and her family moved to a neighborhood less than an hour from the refugee hub of Clarkston, Georgia. Known as "the Ellis Island of the South," Clarkston has 12,700 residents, up to half of whom are current or former refugees. Megahed swiftly got involved with a local aid group and then helped turn it into a chapter of the Syrian Community Network, which assists refugees transitioning to the U.S.
If you can't read the instructions on a medicine bottle, Dr. Mona will translate. If you've just had surgery, she knows a nurse who speaks some Arabic and can assist you in caring for post-op wounds. Even if you can't bring yourself to ask for help, she'll give it. Last year, when a woman in the refugee community began exhibiting signs of severe depression but didn't want anyone to know she was having "sad thoughts," Megahad convinced her to chat (in Arabic) with Yassar Kanawati, MD, a Syrian psychiatrist. "Now she's smiling and making eye contact," Megahed says. In November, inspired by that experience, Megahed and Kanawati started a therapy group for Syrian immigrants to help them deal with PTSD.
Not surprisingly, all this care has earned Dr. Mona her share of fans. "I love Mona so much because she is my sister here," says Sanaa Al Krad, whose husband had the ear pain (and whom Megahed connected with an ENT). "She brings happiness to me and my family."
Photo courtesy of Joseph Helms, MD
The Opioid Fighter
When Joseph Helms, MD, founding president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, met Sergeant Jeff Livingood at an acupuncture training session in 2011, he was dismayed by the Marine's injuries. While on patrol in Iraq in 2004, Livingood's armored vehicle had plunged into an IED crater, crushing his wrists and right forearm. Seven years and 11 surgeries later, he could still barely move his hands and suffered from pain, depression, and insomnia.
Over the course of his treatment, Livingood had received eight prescriptions, including three for opioids. This wasn't unusual: Prescriptions for pain relievers written by military physicians quadrupled between 2001 and 2009, to almost 3.8 million. In a 2014 study, 15 percent of surveyed combat soldiers had used opioids in the last month—triple the rate reported by the general public. Yet, while highly addictive, opioids may be ineffective for chronic pain. That's where acupuncture comes in.
After just one session with Helms's team, Livingood slept better than he had since he was injured; six months later, he was able to empty the dishwasher and fold laundry. Most striking, he was off the opioids.
Since 2010, the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense have encouraged their doctors to educate patients about acupuncture as an alternative to opioids. But even though peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown acupuncture can successfully treat various medical problems, few doctors are qualified to offer it. So in 2014, Helms started the Acus Foundation, a nonprofit that trains military doctors in acupuncture. The group established a program at Nevada's Nellis Air Force base that, in three years, has trained more than 100 physicians, including 25 doctors stationed at Nellis who have performed 8,000-plus acupuncture treatments. After the first year, opioid prescriptions on the base dropped by 45 percent in patients who received at least four treatments.
The program is now training physicians from military bases in California, Illinois, Nebraska, and Florida, with more on the way. "Our goal is for every service member and veteran going into a primary care clinic to have the acupuncture option," says Helms. As for Livingood, he still gets pricked a few times a year. He's retired from the military and has much more control of his hands—enough to help care for not only his three children, but also the 60 chickens he and his wife raise to supply organic eggs to local chefs.
Photo: Saverio Truglia
The First Responder
In 2016, there were 4,368 shootings in Chicago, many on the South Side. That part of the city lacks a level 1 trauma center; depending on their location, victims can be more than five miles from the nearest one. But in the first hour after being shot, every minute counts, says Mamta Swaroop, MD, a trauma surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "The longer it takes a person who is bleeding to get to us, the harder it will be to save them."
Swaroop's challenge: find a way to keep the injured alive long enough to make it to her trauma bay. With the support of Northwestern University, she conducted focus groups with community advocates as well as South Side residents to hear about the violence they'd witnessed and what they wished they could have done to help. And in January 2017, she launched the Chicago South Side Trauma First Responders course. In the free three-hour class, participants learn how to tie a tourniquet with a T-shirt or scarf, how to put unconscious patients in the side-tilt recovery position, how to safely transport people who can't walk on their own, and other simple yet essential techniques that can buy the wounded precious minutes. Swaroop coordinated with CeaseFire Chicago, a community violence prevention organization, as well as local high schools, and spread the word via social media. She's since taught lifesaving skills to more than 150 adults and teens.
Caleb Jacobs, 24, signed up for the class because he wanted to feel more prepared. He'd met Swaroop in 2015, after he was robbed and stabbed in the abdomen while walking in downtown Chicago; she helped him through his recovery and follow-up care. "Her class opened up my mind to the idea that I could use ordinary objects to help save someone's life," Jacobs says. "That's pretty cool."
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Pinder
The Bill Buster
Ten years ago, New York Times journalist Jeanne Pinder was reviewing her medical bills when one jumped out at her: more than $6,000 for anesthesia during a quick outpatient procedure. Pinder began to research each line item and found that an anti-nausea medication for which she'd been charged $1,419 could be had for just $2.49 through a local drug supply company. She spent months disputing the bill; when the hospital wouldn't budge, she sent a check for $500 (about half her co-pay) with a letter saying they were lucky to get that much. "They never responded, but they did cash the check," she says.
Commiserating with friends, Pinder learned that most of them, too, had been grossly overcharged at some point. So she decided to use the tools of her trade to fight back: After taking a buyout from the Times, where she'd worked for 23 years, she founded ClearHealthCosts (CHC). The fact-finding start-up partners with news organizations to gather data on medical costs from providers, patients, and government price lists. It also organizes this information, makes it available to the public, and publishes advice on comparison shopping for reasonable rates on things like mammograms, MRIs, and dental fillings. "We aim to protect people against outrageous bills while helping them understand how the system works," Pinder says.
CHC is free to individuals (the news organizations are the ones that pay—in exchange for access to CHC's data, use of its software, and other services that assist them in reporting on healthcare and drug pricing). Thanks to Pinder's detective work, one New Orleans woman saved nearly $4,000, while another in Newtown, Pennsylvania, knocked $1,205 off her bill (similar successes have played out across the country). Pinder hopes the information will help change medical pricing, one bill at a time. "Patients should know what stuff costs," she says. "And insurance executives, hospital administrators, and policymakers should know that people are tired of gotcha medical bills. A system where people choose to go without necessary care because they're afraid of what it will cost is a system that badly needs to be fixed."
Photo: Rob Larson
The Independence Engineer
Rory Cooper was a 20-year-old U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Germany when a biking accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. One unexpected result of his injury: learning firsthand the importance of good mechanical design. "My first wheelchair was an 80-pound chrome and steel behemoth that was hard to maneuver around my college campus," Cooper says, noting the irony that a device meant to restore some of his mobility often prevented him from getting places.
Now 58, Cooper has made a career designing user-friendly devices for people with physical limitations. He's developed lighter-weight manual wheelchairs that are less burdensome to steer, a chair that can be submerged in water (and has been used at an amusement park that caters to children with mobility issues), and a power wheelchair that gracefully negotiates curbs. In 1994, Cooper became the founding director of Human Engineering Research Laboratories, part of the University of Pittsburgh and the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he oversees nearly 100 engineers, physicians, therapists, and students, many of whom have limited mobility themselves.
One of Cooper's latest projects, a collaboration with Connecticut-based healthcare equipment maker Next Health, is a revolutionary transfer-and-mobility system that allows a person to move herself from wheelchair to bed and back again—no need for a team of caregivers to hoist her or laboriously operate a mechanical lift. For those who are elderly, paralyzed, or injured, or who have a degenerative illness, it can mean the difference between having to live in an assisted-care facility and being able to remain at home or with family. Like all of Cooper's work, it was designed with independence and dignity in mind.
—Rachel Rabkin Peachman
Photo: Nick de la Torre
The Courageous Cooks
When Hurricane Harvey dropped over 40 inches of rain on parts of Houston in August, it flooded roads leading to and from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. For four days, more than 1,000 employees, 500 patients, and 300 of their family members were essentially trapped inside. To make sure folks had enough to eat, four members of the general kitchen staff (which includes 40 cooks on a normal day) camped out at the hospital: Jay Veeraraghavalu (pictured), manager of food operations; Wayne Harris, assistant chief cook; and cooks Michael Chrisp and Charles Smith Jr. Their menu was pared down—eggs scrambled, for instance, instead of made to order—but they were able to whip up an emergency jambalaya with chicken and beans.
Music isn't usually allowed in the kitchen, but to keep spirits and energy up, the quartet turned on their phones and sang along to mariachi and country tunes. Wearing hospital scrubs, working 17 hours at a stretch, napping on a cot when their bodies needed rest, they got the job done. After two days, VPs and directors chipped in, plating, packing, and distributing meals, so the cooks could focus on preparing nourishing food for their hungry hospital.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Burrier
For people who need kidney dialysis, an extended power outage can be deadly, and when Hurricane Irma tore through South Florida, 51 of the 52 clinics owned by DaVita, one of the nation's largest dialysis chains, lost power. However, an emergency plan carried out by division vice president Vicki Burrier and DaVita staff ensured that dialysis patients were taken care of.
"We treated patients right up until the county ordered evacuations," says Burrier. They also sent them home with instructions on what to do if they couldn't make it to a clinic after the storm, along with their medical info so they could get treatment elsewhere if they had to flee the area. In Jacksonville, Burrier and a biomed team set up a staging area with supplies and some 20 generators; after the storm, she drove to 15 clinics, assessing damage and helping coordinate delivery of the generators. "There were no lights anywhere, so our truck drivers had to navigate around major debris on I-95 and then hook up the generators by flashlight," she says.
With backup power running, the reopened clinics gave dialysis to anyone in need, regardless of their usual provider. Miami staff whose own homes were damaged still came to work; a van ferried patients from the shelter at the USF Sun Dome to a clinic; and in Key West, nurses searched for three patients who'd refused to evacuate and got them to treatment. As a result of these efforts, more than 18,000 patients were accounted for, and 60 hours after the storm, 95 percent of centers were back to giving patients the care on which their lives depended.
Photo: Todd Douglas
The Guiding Light
For visually impaired students, school can be tough: It's hard to read books and printouts (the faint lines on graph paper— maddening!), it's tricky to avoid bumping into others in the halls, and there's never enough time to copy things down. "People don't like to wait—you learn that early on," says Paloma Rambana, 12, who was born visually impaired and underwent two surgeries to create pupils when she was less than a year old. Rambana is fortunate, though: While she faces some challenges getting around her Florida school, her parents have always made sure she's had key aids, including a closed-circuit TV (in which a video camera is connected to a computer monitor to generate an enlarged view of everything it records, like the whiteboard) and an electronic handheld magnifier, tools that range in price from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. But when Rambana was in first grade and talking with friends, she realized that not everyone with sight issues had her advantages. "I knew my parents paid for things, but I never really thought about that until other kids said, ‘I wish I had these things—you're so lucky.'"
After talking to her parents about her concerns, she learned about an odd gap in Florida state funding: Significant dollars were earmarked for the youngest blind and visually impaired students (5 and under) and the oldest (between 14 and 22)—but not the kids in the middle (6 to 13). For that group, that meant no access to special reading equipment like CCTVs or for critical life-skills instruction—how to operate magnifying devices or cross the street safely. And children who are blind weren't receiving information on how to work a Braille writer, use a white cane, or master taking the bus.
In 2015, when the Florida Agencies Serving the Blind, which had spent years lobbying to close the funding gap, asked Rambana to join their effort, she jumped at the chance. Trading playdates for activism, she held two rallies and lobbied nearly 30 lawmakers, most of whom hadn't even known the gap in services existed. She also launched palomasdream.org to raise awareness and even out the disparity.
Rambana's lobbying helped secure $1.25 million for programs that extend coverage to children ages 6 to 13. The money covers part of the cost of aids like magnifiers as well as classes to teach visually impaired kids to become as independent as possible. But while Rambana has succeeded in her initial mission in Florida—for which she was recognized by Points of Light, the world's largest organization dedicated to volunteer service—she's now advocating for more state money and last summer lobbied Congress, requesting that at least $1 billion be put aside for special education programs for visually impaired, deaf, and blind children across the country. (Go to pointsoflight.org/paloma to learn more about Rambana and find ways that you can be a changemaker, too.)
Photo: Steve Jones
The Sex-Ed Evangelist
In 2002, when she was 28, Cherisse Scott took a leave from her job as a paralegal to play the lead in a national musical theater tour. Then she learned she was pregnant. She completed the tour, went home to Chicago, and visited what she believed was an abortion clinic but what was actually a crisis pregnancy center that convinced her to carry the pregnancy to term. Seven months after giving birth, Scott lost her job, and for six years, she relied on unemployment and food stamps, working temp jobs and performing gigs to make ends meet. "It's important to note that though this organization convinced me to keep my baby," she says, "they were nowhere to be found to offer any support for his life, health, education, or well-being."
In her early 30s, Scott met a friend of a friend who'd helped found a reproductive-justice organization; the two had a "life-affirming" conversation. And when Scott found herself pregnant again, the woman not only connected her to services but also taught her about fertility, pregnancy, and how to prevent it. For Scott, a lightbulb went off. She began volunteering with her new friend's group, Black Women for Reproductive Justice. In the process, she got passionate about sex ed. "I wished somebody had taught me about my body, about healthy sexuality, when I was young and made sure I knew what to do in order not to get pregnant," she says.
The need for such lessons is especially great in Memphis, where Scott moved in 2011. Tennessee mandates that an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum be used in public schools. What's more, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are almost double and triple the national average, respectively, among 15- to 19-year-olds in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, and more than half of the city's high school students have had sex.
Scott decided to intervene. In 2011, she founded SisterReach, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance reproductive autonomy, especially for women of color. Since 2016, the group has partnered with local churches to offer comprehensive sex ed for women and teens. Its one- to three-day Vacation Body School events (the name is a play on Vacation Bible School camps for Christian kids) cover healthy relationships, sexual anatomy, birth control options, consent, and risky behavior. SisterReach has hosted a dozen of these events and will launch a nationwide training tour this year, sharing its curricula with advocates, clergy, and the general public.
Meanwhile, Scott is expanding the scope of SisterReach, which now employs six full-time and two part-time staffers. "The wombs of black women built this country," she says. "Unfortunately, that's not reflected in our culture or in our laws." She and other members of SisterReach have been organizing meetings in Washington, D.C., "to talk to decision-makers about the kind of support black women need—and aren't currently getting." But politics isn't the only area where Scott is raising her voice; with her son now in high school and SisterReach thriving, she's returned to singing—jazz/soul/R&B fusion—and will release her third album later this year.
—Rachel Louise Martin
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Weitzel, MD
The Cancer Crusader
Two decades ago, when Jeffrey Weitzel, MD, started seeing young Latina patients being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, he knew something needed to be done. "This was a huge threat to them and their families," says Weitzel, chief of the clinical cancer genomics division at City of Hope cancer center in Duarte, California. Although Latinas have a lower incidence of breast cancer overall, they're more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed before age 50. Weitzel suspected that inherited mutations of the BRCA genes played a role, but little data was available. So he did the research himself. He created a network of clinics, many in underserved communities, to provide cancer care; more than 90 percent of women who visited the clinics between 1998 and 2010 agreed to share their DNA information with Weitzel's team. They confirmed that certain mutations did indeed play a significant role in the development of breast and ovarian cancer in Latinas, particularly of Mexican descent.
In 2013, Weitzel's group published the largest study of Hispanic women in the U.S. with these cancers, examining the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in 746 families; 25 percent tested positive for harmful mutations (including a new BRCA1 mutation likely unique to people of Mexican descent). Thanks in part to this research, some Medicaid plans now cover genetic screening for the mutations—for Mexican Americans and everyone else. Today, Weitzel regularly travels to Latin America to share insights about adapting genetic research and cancer care to settings where technology varies widely. He says, "We want to identify these mutations in families before someone gets cancer, and now we're on our way."
Photo: Chad Holder
The Alzheimer's Empath
"How did you feel when you learned you had Alzheimer's?" That's one of Lori La Bey's favorite questions to ask on her biweekly podcast, Alzheimer's Speaks Radio. One response, from an 85-year-old fellow named Bob, was something anyone dealing with Alzheimer's could relate to: "Terrible!" But La Bey wasn't done. In her Minnesota-nice accent, she got Bob to talk about how he came out of his dark period and became a late-blooming painter and poet. "If the Alzheimer's train is coming," he said, "you have to start to live your life now."
La Bey, 58, loves showcasing the surprisingly not-awful aspects of Alzheimer's. Her mother lived with the disease for 30 years—plenty of time for La Bey to come up with strategies to help them feel connected and close, like saying "After a while, crocodile," an old in-joke that still made them laugh. It turned out that having a positive, proactive attitude helped everyone involved. Working in real estate, La Bey helped seniors transition into assisted living; whenever she talked with staff there about her mom, they encouraged her to share her perspective with other Alzheimer's families, telling her, "All they hear is gloom and doom. They need some inspiration and hope."
That urging eventually led La Bey to launch Alzheimer's Speaks, with experts sharing coping strategies and research and, groundbreakingly, people with Alzheimer's talking about what the disease has taught them. More than 400 episodes later, it reaches 2,000 to 4,000 listeners every week.
In 2012, La Bey launched the "Dementia Chats" video webinar series, in which small groups of people with the condition, plus dementia behavior specialist Eilon Caspi, talk via videoconference about, say, caring for pets or how to make good use of smartphones and apps. La Bey toggles among the screens, encouraging the quieter guests to open up and skillfully redirecting the conversation away from those who hold the mic a little too long. But it's a stereotype that people with dementia go off track and ramble all the time, she's quick to note. "Sometimes they're the one bringing me back to the topic." The technology chat is now used by a UK hospital in educational materials. "They—like most people who watch the videos—have been shocked at how well people can communicate about their own disease symptoms and progression," says La Bey. "There are just so many voices to raise, and I want to get everybody talking."