Of the many uncertainties Americans face today, the future of our health is among the most worrisome. With health-insurance coverage in flux, medical-research funding on the chopping block, and science itself under attack, it’s only natural for us to be concerned about our collective health, which is already less robust than that of people in many other industrialized nations.
Yet there is still reason to believe better times are ahead. Plenty of people are devoting their lives to improving everyone’s well-being, and most of them work outside of government and the insurance industry, where positive changes are often bungled or bogged down.
Meet some of the visionaries who are rethinking health, healthcare, and well-being from the ground up — and inspiring us to take our wellness into our own hands.
Food as Medicine: Jeanne Wallace, PhD, CNC, Oncologist
Jeanne Wallace is committed to fighting cancer with food. In her practice, Nutritional Solutions, she teaches doctors and patients how to support standard cancer treatments with evidence-based nutritional strategies that focus on altering the body’s environment, making it less friendly to tumors.
Her work is rooted in personal experience; several of her family members are cancer survivors. When her partner, Cheryl Clark, was diagnosed in 1997 with an aggressive brain cancer, Wallace did intensive research and developed a protocol to support Clark’s treatment. Clark reduced her intake of sugar and carbohydrates and employed specific herbs and supplements, all of which boosted the effectiveness of her radiation treatment.
Today, Clark remains well, and Wallace is a sought-after speaker, as well as a respected authority in the burgeoning field of nutritional oncology.
Learn more about Wallace’s work at www.nutritional-solutions.net.
Feeding Justice: Ron Finley, Founder of The Ron Finley Project
Before he became internationally known as a food activist, Ron Finley was a clothing designer. He had an eye for beauty — and for its absence. In 2010 he looked around his South Los Angeles neighborhood and saw only fast-food joints, liquor stores, and corner shops peddling processed snacks. He calls this “food injustice.”
“You can’t tell me that’s not by design,” Finley argues. “Some people say, ‘If these people wanted to eat healthy food, they could.’ But there’s no healthy food in their neighborhoods to eat, period.” His response? “If they’re not bringing it, let’s grow it!”
Finley started planting vegetables on the city-owned parkway — the strip between the sidewalk and the street in front of his house — offering them free to anyone willing to harvest them. The city ticketed him for “overgrown vegetation.” He refused to pay the fine until better grocery stores were recruited to the neighborhood, and an arrest warrant was issued. With the aid of other activists, Finley convinced the city council to amend the law.
That was the beginning. Finley then turned his emptied swimming pool and the rest of his yard into a colorful, edible garden. “Food is the problem and food is the solution,” he declared in a 2013 TED Talk that went viral. Finley soon became known as the Gangsta Gardener to thousands of justice-seeking green thumbs worldwide.
He’s now working to change the meaning of OG from “original gangsta” to “organic gardener.”
“My thing on the gangsta is to flip that on its head [so] people don’t see it as a negative,” he explains. “Being educated is gangsta; being self-sustaining is gangsta. Being a nerd — that can be gangsta. Because what you’re doing is creating.”
His organization, The Ron Finley Project, continues to promote com-munity self-sufficiency, celebrating the political power of gardening. Finley regularly hears from people in other cities who’ve launched garden projects inspired by his work, and he notes how these spaces can be ideal platforms for widespread change.
“You’ve got to change culture through soil, because the bottom line is, that’s what we all go back to,” he explains. “We turn to soil, and people seem to forget that. That’s not nature out there. We’re nature.”
Watch Finley’s popular 2013 TED Talk at bit.ly/1sVuD84.
Teaching Doctors to Heal: Victoria Maizes, MD, Integrative Physician
During her medical residency in 1989, Victoria Maizes fell in love — with her patients’ stories.
“I became fascinated with how it was that Mr. X got diabetes, and Ms. Y had terrible health habits but was perfectly healthy,” she says. “I was trying to understand the influences [of life experiences] on health.”
This love affair has had a significant impact on Maizes — and on American medicine. The stories she loved helped her see her patients as whole people and not just their symptoms, which led her to employ a variety of treatment methods. If medication improved someone’s condition, she prescribed it. If meditation would work, she recommended it. And she often counseled for both.
This approach, now known as integrative medicine, considers the environmental, psychological, social, and spiritual influences on illnesses, and it integrates a variety of healing modalities — from antibiotics to acupuncture.
It took some time for Maizes’s broad-minded perspective to catch on in the medical community. She directed strategic education at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, Calif., during the early 1990s, and was eager to offer complementary support for patient health. “There were mind–body programs designed after Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work and parenting and anger-management programs,” she recalls.
Yet she found that many of the patients knew more about these healing practices than their doctors did. So she began sharing her passion for integrative medicine with other physicians.
“Doctors haven’t been trained” to know all the things that can support health, she explains. Without training, they can’t help you. “If you ask your doctor what you should eat, he or she may say, ‘Eat a healthy diet.’ Well, what is a healthy diet?”
Many more physicians can now answer that and other holistic-health questions effectively, thanks to Maizes. When she began directing Dr. Andrew Weil’s integrative-medicine program in Arizona in 2000, it included only four fellows in training. Today she supervises more than 150 fellows and 500 residents each year. Some 1,200 doctors have graduated from the program.
“This approach has [become] an established direction in medicine,” Maizes says. “People can now access this kind of care more easily, and they’re getting the relief they hope for.”
Read Maizes’s articles for patients at www.victoriamaizesmd.com.
Good to the End: BJ Miller, MD, Palliative-Care Physician
BJ Miller rides a motorcycle around San Francisco and camps regularly with his dog. He’s also a triple amputee who lost his left hand and both legs below the knee after an accident in college.
Rather than seeing his condition as a disability, Miller trained himself to view it as a new reality, a specific set of limitations that were nonetheless like the limitations all mortals face. This perspective is part of what makes him a leading palliative-care physician, who is helping to spread the word about the vital importance of quality of life at the end of life — and along the course of serious illness.
He spent five years as the executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, blending hard-won spiritual insight with skillful symptom and pain management, and he now lectures nationwide about the art of end-of-life care.
Watch Miller’s TED Talk on end-of-life issues at bit.ly/1KeX2j5.
The Write Thing: Aseem Malhotra, Cardiologist, Columnist
When he’s not practicing with the National Health Service in Britain, cardiologist Aseem Malhotra campaigns tirelessly against obesity and heart disease. He’s no shill for the pharmaceutical industry, though. In his columns for the popular English newspaper The Guardian, he illustrates how socioeconomic conditions influence obesity, heart disease, and diet.
His educational campaigns about the risks of sugar and the value of healthy fats, the need for better-quality school food, and the importance of greater transparency and responsibility in healthcare have brought these issues to a mainstream audience.
He also writes about personalized medicine and improving communication between doctors and patients, so he’s changing the message from the ground up.
Learn more at www.doctoraseem.com.
Taking the Next Steps: T. Morgan Dixon, Cofounder of GirlTrek
“Black women are dying faster than any other group of people in America from preventable illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, stroke. Heart disease alone kills 137 black women every day. For us, that sounded an alarm.”
T. Morgan Dixon is explaining why she cofounded GirlTrek, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit and nationwide public-health movement that promotes wellness through organized walking. The group’s 100,000-plus members are African-American women and girls who’ve committed to regular 30-minute group hikes. (Research shows that daily walks can cut the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes by half.) The group issues monthly challenges to the walkers — to double their distance, for instance, or walk mindfully — and encourages them to establish new walking groups of their own.
Dixon worked as an educational consultant before founding GirlTrek in 2012 with a college friend, digital-media professional and social-justice activist Vanessa Garrison. “GirlTrek started with two friends,” explains Dixon. “Now there are over 100,000.”
The health issues they address are complex, Dixon notes. Obesity in the black community is connected to chronic poverty, lack of access to healthy food, and the fact that many black women lack sufficient leisure time to work out at a gym. “And there’s a history of zoning that’s denied African Americans access to green space,” she adds.
Dixon emphasizes that GirlTrek is not about vanity; its goal is wellness. “I think women of all shapes and sizes are incredibly beautiful,” she says. “This is about living well and living for our kids.”
Their focus on community health is also rooted in African-American history, Dixon says, when “women walked for change.” GirlTrek’s presiding spirit is Harriet Tubman: The abolitionist firebrand not only walked out of slavery herself, but returned multiple times to guide others to freedom on foot. Tubman lived vigorously into her 90s.
“We’re concerned with reclaiming the streets of our neighborhoods,” Dixon continues. “A walking group becomes kind of a neighborhood watch in sneakers, right? Then you want to tackle a community garden. Then you want to tackle a dangerous intersection. Then you want to tackle other things in your neighborhood to make it safer and better.”
Watch Dixon and Garrison’s TED Talk at bit.ly/2qFr62x.
Leading the Way: Abdul El-Sayed, PhD, Public-Health Advocate
At 33, epidemiologist Abdul El-Sayed has earned a doctorate from Oxford, taught public health at Columbia University, and served Detroit as the youngest health commissioner of any major U.S. city. He’s largely credited with rebuilding a department shuttered during the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.
“After medical school, I was a lot more interested in health policy, and the reasons why people get sick in the first place, than what I could do for them after they got sick,” El-Sayed says. He wanted to address the “pretty drastic health disparity” he saw in our society.
As Detroit’s health commissioner, he witnessed stark evidence of this disparity: The average life expectancy of a Detroit citizen was 10 years less than a suburban resident living 30 minutes away. Detroit children are four times more likely than other U.S. kids to be exposed to lead.
As commissioner, El-Sayed focused on seven critical outcomes: infant mortality, teen pregnancy, lead poisoning, asthma, poor vision, “misnutrition” (malnutrition and obesity), and elderly isolation. He saw that physical health couldn’t be treated as separate from social and economic conditions.
“Public health has a lot more to do with all of the things that allow people the best opportunities in their lives,” he explains. “Access to a high-quality education and then a good, stable job that pays a living wage, that puts healthy food on the table, and [that] allows people to live in a walkable neighborhood and put a roof over their heads. These are what shape health and disease.”
Despite broader challenges in his community, El-Sayed can point to some significant public-health victories. He led a successful fight to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, instituted lead testing of Detroit’s water (to avoid another Flint), and created a program to provide free eyeglasses to schoolkids.
More recently, he’s taken his experiences in public service into the political arena, running for governor of Michigan in November. That campaign illustrated his ongoing commitment to the work of healing and uniting communities in a time of rigid political polarization.
“The thing about this moment is that we have to recognize that we’re all in this together,” he says. “If we fail to do that, our challenges will persist. There’s real courage being demanded of us.”
Groundswell: Betti Wiggins, School Nutrition Director
When Betti Wiggins became director of the Office of School Nutrition in the Detroit Public Schools in 2012, the district’s challenges were substantial: a dwindling economic base, a shrinking population, schools closing.
But where many saw only decline, she saw an opportunity for a revolution. Specifically, a revolution in how kids eat at school.
Wiggins grew up on a Michigan farm and moved to Detroit in her teens. After leaving to serve as a school-food-program administrator in Washington, D.C., and other cities, she returned home, where she connected her childhood farming experience with her adult administration skills. In her view, urban agriculture was the solution to Detroit’s school-nutrition problems.
“How do you build communities back up?” she asks. “Well, you can do something sustainable like gardens.”
Detroit was already teeming with urban farmers growing food in their yards and on vacant lots, and this inspired Wiggins. “When the city closed 140 schools, I saw it as an opportunity to do something with some of those playgrounds and ball fields,” she explains.
In 2011 Wiggins created the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, a network of some 80 gardens on the grounds of closed (and open) schools. In place of lunches built around deep-fried corn dogs and other dishes that Wiggins calls “carnival food,” students began eating zucchini, spinach, and tomatoes from the district’s own gardens.
She instituted free breakfast and low-cost dinner programs while extending the free-lunch program to all students, regardless of income, so poor kids wouldn’t feel stigmatized. Meanwhile, she supervised the sale of surplus produce to charter and parochial schools. And, moved by her own vivid memories of her family’s unsold produce going to waste, Wiggins contracted with local farmers, creating a thriving secondary market for their crops.
Wiggins is now at the helm of the school-lunch program in Houston, a city with far more resources than Detroit. Still, nearly a quarter of households there lack sufficient food, and she hopes to make a dent in that number.
While she’s rightfully proud of the numerous awards she’s won, including one from the James Beard Foundation, Wiggins says she’s inspired by encounters like the one she had in a Detroit grocery store. She overheard a student say to her mother, “Ma, get those avocados, because we’ve got to learn how to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ll show you how to make guacamole.”