Let’s be thoughtful about our health!

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on March 24, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

I recently had the privilege of hosting New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise for several days as she came to the Valley to write a story on immigrants and health. Tavernise has an interesting story of her own, having spent four years in Iraq covering the war and another eight years in Russia covering politics, economics and culture. She lives in Washington D.C. and this was her first visit to the Valley. As we talked in the car between appointments with families, I “interviewed her” so to speak, wondering about her impressions of this community we all call home. I asked her how it is similar and different to other places she has visited.

“This was the first time I’d been to South Texas, so the community was pretty new to me. That said, similarities with other American cities were the fast food restaurants along the highways, people with really busy work lives, trying to get their kids to sports/music practice, while juggling full time jobs. I met really hardworking people, people trying to hold their family lives together with very little time.”

Tavernise continued, “There are palm trees and sun and it is 75 degrees in March! I am from Massachusetts and lived for years in Russia so that was an unexpected treat for me. I was struck by the high rate of diabetes among people in the area. The rate was higher than I’d seen in most other places I’ve worked. It made me interested in finding out why. I spoke to many people who were thinking about their health — a whole Zumba class of people (at a church) who were very concerned about health and diet, for example. I encountered a general thoughtfulness about health and its worth over a life time. It made me want to return to Brownsville!”

Because I work in public health research, I tend to focus only on the problems and challenges we have in the Valley. I often view this place, my home, through a critical lens; because I am so aware that we have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country (perhaps the world). This coupled with high unemployment, poverty, teen pregnancy, etc. makes for a grim outlook on health. Sadly, our uninsured population in the Valley soars above 60%, not always documented in national or census surveys, but verified by reliable local data collected through the Cameron County Cohort Study. What do all these poor statistics ultimately mean to our community?  That a huge number of folks are forced to live with poor and deteriorating health until they are very sick and have to drop into an emergency room for last minute and more expensive care that further burdens the system.

Our health problems are not just in the Valley, but nationwide the cost of healthcare is rising disproportionately to the economy.  Unfortunately the rising costs of care are not matched by better health outcomes. In other words, we as individuals spend so much more on health than other developed countries, yet we don’t have a healthier population. For example, we have the most sophisticated neonatal intensive care technology systems in the world, but we rank number 50 in infant mortality, that is 9 spots below Cuba! (Time Magazine, February 20, 2013, “What Makes Health Care So Expensive?”)

And yet our greatest asset is our hardworking people, as Travernise put it, “who have a general thoughtfulness about health and its worth over a life-time.” That is increasingly true as families suffer the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles, and live in an environment that promotes cars and fast food, and struggle with lack of access to the kind of health care that promotes health and not just treats sickness.

Perhaps that is why more and more individuals, organizations and institutions are coming together in the Valley to create an environment and policies that are health promoting. Sometimes these efforts seem so small compared to the larger, more daunting issues we face, or to the money that can be made by treating sick people, feeding them junk food, selling them cigarettes. But there has been progress locally. Awareness is growing and cities and counties are beginning to have conversations about redesigning streets and transportation to promote walking and cycling, building hike and bike trails, providing affordable and safe places to exercise, accessing fresh fruits and vegetables, and implementing employee wellness programs that increase productivity and lower the cost of insurance. If our quality of life and economy is to improve in the Valley, we must be thoughtful about our health, protecting it at all costs. It must be something we value more than a fancy house or car. It gives me hope that such an observant visitor as Travernise identified both the challenges and assets we have as a community. Now it is up to all of us to address them, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!(Your Health Matters!) is a campaign of the UT School of Public Health and Transforming Texas to address obesity and associated chronic diseases.