She looked healthy and felt healthy, but when Cordelia Hill was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall she decided it was finally time to start listening to her body.
First, after intensive treatment and therapy, she beat the cancer. Now free of that, the 47-year-old Oklahoma City resident is among the first to enroll in a new prevention and wellness program offered by the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
Funded in part by money allocated through the new federal health care law, “My Heart, My Health, My Family” is part of the department's effort to reduce the steep costs of poor health and treatment with a heavy focus on key preventive measures.
“You get so accustomed to do what you want to do and eat like you like, so it's a mindset thing,” Hill said after her fifth in a series of wellness classes offered as part of the program. “When I got that cancer it kind of scared me — I want to help raise my grandchildren.”
Lesson plans, taught by department specialists with the help of volunteers from the local health care community, are different each session. Hill and other participants spent a recent morning learning about healthy eating habits, from proper portion sizes to the benefits of substituting water or tea for sugary drinks like fountain sodas.
In exchange, participants are rewarded with access to free regular clinical checkups four times a year — including free medication — and to a wealth of information aimed at keeping them out of the emergency room.
Hill's is a story Michael Bailey hopes can be repeated hundreds of times over the five-year course of the $3.5 million grant.
A 22-year health inspector for the department, Bailey recently switched jobs and assumed the role of community liaison for wellness. Now a foot soldier in the local fight against diabetes and cardiovascular disease, he works daily to recruit new program participants from one of the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Stretching north-south from NE 78 to NE 16 and east-west from N Kelley to N Bryant, the 73111 ZIP code is one of the poorest — and, not coincidentally, unhealthiest — in Oklahoma County. Matching actual health data of the neighborhood's residents with other determinant factors, such as access to fresh fruits and vegetables, access to health care providers, income and education levels, the department has honed in on the area as a pilot study for what could ultimately be rolled out countywide.
Here, in a predominantly black area in the middle of the city, infant mortality rates are twice that of the county's healthiest ZIP code, 73151, in far northeast Oklahoma City.
Cancer diagnoses are 31 percent higher in 73111 than in 73151, and deaths from cardiovascular disease are 10 times higher. About 9 percent of people in 73151 live below the poverty level; in 73111 that number rockets up to 30 percent.
Bailey said he sees the problem walking the streets of 73111 every day.
“You won't find a lot of people here that buy groceries once a month — most buy them every day because they don't know if they're going to have money enough to buy groceries next week,” he said. “For a lot of these people, putting a roof over your head, having gas in your car, having a car to drive at all — these things come first, so you're eating whatever you can.”
Following Tuesday's wellness class, Bailey made his first rounds of the week, dropping off stacks of program fliers and asking community leaders to join him in recruiting additional participants.
On the 1400 block of NE 23, restaurant owner Florence Jones Kemp said her customers just don't want to hear about healthy options.
Florence's, a soul food cafe with a southern flair, is known for its fried chicken and cornbread muffins, cooked to order by Jones Kemp.
“We tell them all the time, ‘Eat lots of salad and vegetables,' and we try serving them fresh vegetables, or pinto beans,” she told Bailey. “But they do listen at me, so when I tell them to go see about this they're going to go.”