An autism diagnosis can be overwhelming for parents. That’s what David and Joreen Varecka heard shortly after their son Gavin’s second birthday.
“I like to fix things, and this was something I couldn’t fix, but we knew there were a ton of services available to us and that’s when we came across David’s Refuge,” says David.
David’s Refuge provides respite, resources and support to parents and guardians of children with special needs or life-threatening medical conditions. Through an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Health Equity Award grant, the organization can now provide mental health counseling services for full-time, unpaid family caregivers.
“It can be difficult at times to communicate with Gavin because he is also non-verbal,” says Joreen. “Sometimes it’s just too much, I need help and my family is right there to support us along with David’s Refuge.”
“With our mental health counseling services and wellness programs, we give caregivers the tools they need to be the best version of themselves,” says Kate Houck, Executive Director of David’s Refuge. “From overnight getaways to community events, caregivers get a chance to connect, talk, recharge, and know they are not alone.”
(Video) David and Joreen share more with us on being parents to a special needs child and how their lives have been impacted by David’s Refuge.
When the pandemic forced Karen Goossen to close the doors of her business this spring, she knew her income was at risk. She didn’t realize the economic fallout would also put her health at risk.
Goossen, of Monroe County, had been following her doctor’s advice to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to her diet to help manage her heart health. However, with her income limited, those healthier choices became luxuries.
“I had to find a way to stretch my dollars,” she said, “so sometimes I had to do without fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The ability to earn a paycheck and feed a family are at risk for many people because of the pandemic and this is leading to a growing number of people experiencing food insecurity.
A recent study by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, showed food insecurity in the 10-county area including Monroe County is expected to rise 45 percent this year due to the pandemic.
Loss of income, poverty, a person’s environment, education levels, and discrimination can all contribute to health risks. Known as social determinants of health, these factors can have significant impact on a person’s quality of life and well-being.
“I had been working hard, trying to eat healthier to improve my health and when I had to close the doors of my business, I had to limit the types of food I could buy,” she said. “I never thought I would be in this position at this point in my life. It’s an unusual and challenging time.”
Healthier Diet = Health Care Goals
This summer, Goossen’s nurse care manager contacted her about a new pilot program designed to help her and others who have health care needs and are at risk of food insecurity. The “Fresh Account at Curbside Market” program provides monthly vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
The program was developed in partnership with her health insurer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and local food bank, Foodlink. The Curbside Market is Foodlink’s mobile farmers market, which provides affordable and convenient access to healthy foods in underserved communities.
Foodlink Curbside Market Truck
“You need a healthy diet to improve and maintain good health,” said Dr. Brian Steele, vice president medical affairs, clinical services at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. This seemed to be an area where we could intervene.”
“The Fresh Account program helps people access healthier foods and celebrates making the healthy choice the easy choice,” said Julia Tedesco, President & CEO of Foodlink.
Farmers Market on Wheels
Participation in the program helps Goossen extend her food budget and meet her health care goals. “My first visit to Curbside Market I purchased peaches, nectarines, corn, celery, cherry tomatoes, grapes, onions, white and sweet potatoes – they had more than I anticipated!”
The wide variety gave her the opportunity to try some new foods. “I love to cook, so I’m finding new recipes and making creative meals. It’s been helpful to me. I’m learning more about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables I normally wouldn’t purchase.”
The best part?
“I’ve already lost 20 pounds!” She gained 50 pounds during the pandemic and credits her healthier diet for her weight loss. “Now I’m grabbing more fresh fruits and vegetables for a snack instead of something that will put weight back on and negatively affect my health.”
Goossen says she’s concentrating on staying positive.
“In the early ‘90’s, when my children were little, I benefitted from the WIC program and food pantries. I know what it’s like to have family go without,” she said. “When I was able, I gave back, volunteering to help others and providing Thanksgiving dinners for those in need – it’s nice to give back.”
Although she didn’t expect to be on the receiving end again, she’s grateful to have this resource. “It’s a great idea. There’s a need and people are benefitting and appreciative.”
She calls the program “a blessing. The timing was perfect. I really needed it. And when I’m able, I’ll give back again.”
Making the decision to breastfeed can be a complicated and daunting process for many women. Health experts recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for about the first six months. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding disparities exist, with fewer Black infants being breastfed compared with White and Hispanic infants. There is also a lack of diversity in the lactation field.
When factors such as unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding are combined with food desert-like conditions in many urban areas where women may struggle to access healthy food, it brings to light the importance of a week devoted to Black Breastfeeding.
This week – August 25-31, 2020 – is celebrated by many who wish to bring attention to the topic, including Syracuse Community Connections’ Maternal and Family Health Program, which provides pregnancy, birth and parenting support to families that are expecting a child and/or have children up to 18 months old.
Connecting the Community
According to Rachel Johnson, Maternal and Family Health Program Director at Syracuse Community Connection, their home-based services are free to families residing in the Syracuse area. These services include a Doula Program, a Fatherhood Program and Baby Talk classes. Black Breastfeeding Week is one of many opportunities this organization takes to educate the public on topics and issues that impact women and families in their community.
“Black Breastfeeding Week is meant to highlight and celebrate the Black women in our community that have chosen the complex journey of breastfeeding,” she said. “Our goal is to create visibility for and celebrate Black women who are currently breastfeeding; de-mystify breastfeeding, while providing the opportunity for individuals to share their real and raw experiences; and provide education to the community and support systems that enhance confidence to encourage a positive breastfeeding experience.”
Bridging the Gaps
Creating representation and transparency for Black maternal health helps to bridge gaps in our community in order to work towards reducing health disparities that are largely influenced by race, gender, and income status, says Latoya Mallory. Latoya manages Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s SafetyNet Member Care Management Program, Bright Beginnings.
“We offer services that support what our friends at Syracuse Community Connections are doing,” Latoya explains. “We offer programs that go hand-in-hand, including Bright Beginnings, which works with pregnant or new mothers to manage appointments and visits to the hospital and pediatrician, and provides breast pumps and pregnancy education.”
The Bright Beginnings program helps support Black Breastfeeding Week by providing education to Excellus BCBS members about the benefits of breastfeeding – a standard set forth whenever care managers like Emily Georger, RN, work with women in the community.
Emily recently helped a new mom through the breastfeeding decision-making process, which can sometimes be daunting. “This member had planned to breastfeed, but was not fully educated on what to expect,” she explained. “I was able to provide education and help talk through some common misconceptions about breastfeeding.”
The member was also connected with other services that would help her in this decision including a lactation consultant with Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Medicaid free breast pump benefit, and virtual parenting classes offered by local community agencies.
“The member, who delivered a healthy baby girl this summer, was pleasantly surprised, as she was unaware of the additional services available to her… It’s our job to help connect those dots,” Emily said.
Thanks to the work of these organizations and a week that draws attention to this important health issue, an impact can be made.
“We want Black women to know that they are being seen and heard,” Rachel said. “We want them to know that they are not alone and that they have a safe space to share their stories.
Syracuse Community Connections’ Maternal and Family Health Program
Food banks across New York state are helping families put healthy meals on the table, obtain personal care items, baby food, diapers and household cleaning supplies, and take-home fresh items like meat, cheese, eggs and produce. Now more than ever, with school closures, job losses, and health risks, millions of people have turned to food banks for much-needed support.
A foodbank is a non-profit organization that collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities like the dozens of food pantries in our communities. Food banks act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller frontline agencies.
“Feeding people facing hunger is about more than simply providing food. It’s about providing wellness, stability, and nourishment,” said Jessica Renner, regional president of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in the Southern Tier.
Partnering for Better Health
Food insecurity is known to impact health status, including putting individuals at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and kidney disease.
Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals struggling with food insecurity experience more difficulties managing their health, leading to more health complications, frequent emergency room visits, and hospital stays.
Now more than ever, food banks are helping to increase access to food and other social needs in our communities.
In the Rochester region, Foodlink serves more than 200,000 people each year across a 10-county service area. Foodlink provides services to a wide network of 190 emergency agencies (pantries, soup kitchens, shelters) and provides food resources to more than 300 area partners. These partners include community centers, clinics and affordable housing developments.
Excellus BCBS is proud to support the following services that Foodlink provides to the community:
A mobile food pantry truck that makes emergency food deliveries to undeserved areas in and around Monroe County.
A Cooking Matters education program that empowers families with skills, knowledge and confidence to make health and affordable meals.
A curbside market truck that links low-income areas in the Rochester community with nutritious, fresh, and affordable produce.
The Lexington Avenue Community farm, which serves more than 60 local refugee families.
Foodbank mobile food pantry truck
Volunteers are also a necessity at Foodlink. Hundreds of Rochester-based Excellus BCBS employees have consistently volunteered their efforts at the Foodlink’s food distribution center. Volunteers help by packing food products, sorting food items and distributing food to area partner agencies.
In the Southern Tier region, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier is increasing access to healthy food and helping to build a strong, healthy, vibrant community. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier serves Broome, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins counties. The organization is at the forefront of community collaboration around the social determinants of health, like food access and transportation.
“There’s really been a movement to focus on the social determinants of health. And, access to healthy food is right there at the top of the list,” said Jessica.
Excellus BCBS is proud to support the following services that Food Bank of the Southern Tier provides to the community:
In the Central New York region, the Food Bank of Central New York serves as the main food distribution center for the counties of Cayuga, Chenango, Cortland, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, and St. Lawrence. The organization partners with local agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters that distribute the food to families in need.
Food Bank of Central New York’s Mobile Food Pantry
Excellus BCBS is proud to support efforts to nourish the community through Food Bank of Central New York’s Mobile Food Pantry (MFP). MFP is an effort to reach communities and individuals in areas of unmet need. It is a practical distribution method to work around food access obstacles and food deserts. While the MFP program initially only operated in Oneida County, the program has recently expanded into several other areas including Onondaga and Oswego counties.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 37 million people in the U.S. struggled with hunger, according to Feeding America.
Now, people who have not previously relied on food relief are also struggling and in need. That has caused a strain on food supplies.
Today, some food banks are reporting that they are running low on staples. Therefore, some food banks have had to supplement or ration some of the more popular food items.
Food banks have also had to change their procedures in order to provide food in the age of social distancing. Many food banks and pantries have moved to low-contact, drive-thru food distribution. They’re also now providing food at temporary community “hub” locations, such as schools and community centers, to help reach vulnerable populations.
Food banks don’t just need donations. They also need volunteers to sort and pack food boxes or to help make phone calls for donations. Now during the pandemic, many pantries are holding mobile no-contact distribution, but they still need help setting up the food and raising awareness.
If you are looking for a way to help, check in with your local food bank:
Dajia Richardson parked her truck outside a house in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y.
She peered at the freshly-fallen snow on the driveway. No car. No footprints. “I’m still hopeful that someone is inside,” said Richardson, as she got out of the truck.
She trudged through the snow and knocked on the front door. Unlike some of her other visits this February morning, the man she was looking for opened the door.
Knocking On Members’ Doors
Richardson is part of the Safety Net CARE team at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in upstate New York. CARE stands for Committed and Accountable to Relentless Engagement.
Richardson supervises the Community Connections team. These employees try to find hard-to-reach and medically-fragile Medicaid members and connect them back to the Health Plan.
If a care manager is unable to reach a Medicaid member, for example, the employees will look for members wherever they may be – at home, living under a bridge or at a friend’s house. The team, for example, connected almost 600 Medicaid members back to the Health Plan in the fourth quarter of 2018.
On this February morning, the member who answered the door struggled with high blood pressure. A nurse care manager kept calling him, but he wasn’t answering her calls.
That’s why he had an unannounced visit that morning from Richardson. The two talked for a few minutes. Then he invited her inside.
Another Nurse To Care About You
Richardson’s team of six employees look for Medicaid members daily. They look for Excellus BCBS members who live within eight counties of upstate New York: Broome, Erie, Livingston, Monroe, Oneida, Ontario, Otsego, and Wayne counties.
The employees have discovered that a personal visit may do more than an official letter or phone call to encourage Medicaid members to:
take advantage of community resources
talk to a care manager and enroll in a health-improvement program. Care managers help members with medical conditions, including pregnancies, diabetes and behavioral health issues.
The member with the high blood pressure, for example, told Richardson that he didn’t answer the care manager calls because he didn’t recognize the number. His girlfriend was also a nurse, he said, so he didn’t need to work with another one.
Dajia Richardson of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield
“It’s sometimes a little bit different when you have someone who works as a nurse and you know them personally, as opposed to a nurse care manager specifically for you and your care,” Richardson told the member. “When I put it to him that way, that he would have another nurse to care about him, he was definitely interested,” Richardson added.
By the time Richardson left his house, the member was on the phone talking to the nurse care manager at the Health Plan.
Looking Under Bridges
The hardest members to find are often those who are homeless. “We look for those bread crumbs that tell us where the member may be,” Richardson said.
Community Connections representatives, for example, traced one member with behavioral health issues to his parent’s house. They learned the member was living under a bridge. The parents shared details about the member. He was in his 20s, with a blonde ponytail and a scooter. After several trips to the bridge, Community Connections representatives found him and connected him to a care manager.
Click on the video below to learn about Richardson’s favorite success story – a member who needed help with her health and with other issues, including an eviction.
“We’ve Got the Goods”
Richardson and her team often go above and beyond to help members with other parts of their life.
On a day in January, for example, Richardson started her morning at the Angel Care ministry in a suburb of Rochester. The ministry helps financially-strapped moms acquire portable baby beds and other items.
“We’ve got the goods,” Richardson joked as she left the ministry with a pack n’ play and other baby items for a Medicaid member. She loaded the items in her vehicle. She then headed to the member’s home in the inner city of Rochester.
Community Connections representatives have cultivated contacts in the community – churches, government agencies, nonprofits, etc. – who can help employees secure items such as:
Special formula for premature babies
Help with an eviction
Government-subsidized cell phones
Beds for a family sleeping on wood pallets
Car seats for newborns
For the member receiving the pack n’ play, a care manager had learned that the new mom didn’t have a safe place for her newborn to sleep. That’s why Richardson trekked to the ministry that morning.
“A lot of moms plan to sleep with their baby in their beds, with no plans after that,” said Richardson, as she turned her car out of the ministry’s driveway. “That’s where we can help.”
Chris Booth, CEO of Excellus BCBS, said the work of employees with Community Connections – and many others at the Health Plan – get at the heart of the company’s mission as a nonprofit health plan.
“The reason our Health Plan exists is to make sure as many people as possible have access to high quality, affordable health care,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of, given all the work we do in our communities and especially with our Medicaid members.”
Sarah Lee reflects on her sobriety whenever she walks by a corner room on the second floor of the Jennifer House in Rochester.
She took her first step toward sobriety while staying in the yellow room at the house run by Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach. The house is a short-term residence for women who are often battling addiction and re-entering society after a stint in jail.
“When I first came to the Jennifer House, I was given a choice,” she said. “I made the choice to be sober. For the first time in a while, I had made the right choice.”
Sarah kept making the “right choices.” Today, she’s still at the house, but in a completely different role. Today Sarah is the director of the Jennifer House. It’s a role that she said is both humbling and surreal given how far she’s come since her 52-day stay there in 2008.
From Addict to Leader
Sarah stayed sober, graduated from the Jennifer House and moved into supportive housing. She went back to school, earning her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.
“I never envisioned that I’d be a leader,” said Sarah, who is also in the process of earning her Master of Social Work degree. “It’s a very humbling experience and an honor.”
Sarah said it helps that she can relate to what many of the residents are going through.
“When I say I understand, I understand,” she said.
Straight-A Student Turns to Drugs
For Sarah, the life of an addict started at the age of 14. That’s when the straight-A student took her first drink of alcohol.
“When I had my first drink, I loved it,” Sarah said.
Her drinking led to 11 years of drug use, including marijuana, ecstasy and crack cocaine. She committed crimes, landed in jail a few times and a drug treatment court sent her to the Jennifer House.
Sarah now urges her residents not to forget the person they were while using. Sarah, for example, said she doesn’t hate the version of herself who used to be known on the streets as “snowflake.”
“Snowflake kept me alive, despite all the drugs,” Sarah said. “She was resilient, persevered and somehow survived.”
“But I had to let that person go to become Sarah again,” she added.
You can Have Fun and Be Sober
Sarah’s understanding of how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction helps guide her programming.
The goal of the house’s wellness initiative, for example, is to show the former addicts that they can have fun and be sober.
A grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has helped Sarah fund this program, which is run by a volunteer, part-time recreation therapist. The wellness initiative includes exercise programs at local fitness centers and outings to try white water rafting, horseback riding, bowling and yoga.
Residents of the Jennifer House on a white water rafting trip.
The activities, Sarah said, help residents fight their cravings, decrease stress and increase self-discipline and confidence – all skills essential to recovery. About 80 percent of residents use what they learn from the program to develop new, healthy habits, she added.
Exercise, after all, has been hailed as one piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping people overcome addiction.
Sarah also links each outing to the residents’ own struggles to be sober.
The residents’ battles with the rapids while white water rafting, for example, is like their fight for recovery. The rapids are tough, but you still have to fight through them.
“Life feels like that when you’re in recovery, but you can get through it,” Sarah said.
Before you decide whether or not to have your pre-teen vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus), you may want to read about Christine Baze’s battle with cervical cancer.
Don’t have kids that age? You may still want to read Christine’s story. The National Cancer Institute says HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.
While in most cases HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t result in any health problems, it can cause genital warts and cancer in women and men. The HPV vaccine provides protection against cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (throat and mouth), penile, vaginal and vulvar cancer and genital warts.
Here’s Christine’s story.
It was spring 2000 and Christine was on top of the world, having quit her job as a marriage and family therapist to devote herself full-time to a career in music. Happily married, she and her husband dreamed of starting a family someday.
She showed up for her regular gynecologist’s annual appointment in March figuring it would be the same old routine visit. After all, her Pap smears had been “normal” the last 13 times.
This time, however, her Pap smear came back “abnormal.”
Her doctor explained she had abnormal cells on her cervix, and if left untreated, they could develop into cancer. He explained the cell changes were a result of HPV that she probably had contracted years ago. Although there’s now a vaccine for HPV, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t approve it until 2006, years after Christine unknowingly had contracted the virus.
Cancer was a worst case scenario, her doctor advised her, but referred her to an oncologist specializing in gynecological cancer.
Otherwise healthy, Christine told her doctor, “There’s no way I have cancer,” but agreed to see the specialist.
On April 18, 2000, Christine’s life changed forever. The diagnosis came back cervical cancer.
Her full-time job was surviving
Just months before, Christine had put her professional life on hold to pursue her passion: singing, performing and writing music. Now, her full-time job was surviving.
On April 28, 2000. Christine underwent a radical hysterectomy that removed her uterus, cervix and connective tissue. The surgeon left the one healthy ovary intact, in case Christine and her husband wanted to try in vitro fertilization with a surrogate mother. Later, they did try, but it failed.
“No little Crissi for this Christine,” she remembers thinking.
“You really don’t know how much you want something until you can’t have it,” Christine, a native of Elmira, New York, told Syracuse University students at a sexual health awareness day on campus February 2017.
The author with Christine at her Syracuse University appearance.
Fried Inside and Out
Surgery was only the beginning. External radiation five days a week for five weeks ran concurrent with four rounds of chemotherapy, and then was followed by three rounds of internal radiation.
She felt fried inside and out, emotionally drained and spiritually wounded.
As a licensed family and marriage therapist, Christine knew what she needed to do and did it. She got her own therapist, joined a support group, tried different medications and even got a puppy.
Christine’s dog, Harold
Although Christine survived the cancer, her marriage didn’t weather the fall-out.
Harold and Maude Wake Her Up
A chance viewing of the 1971 cult flick, “Harold and Maude,” was Christine’s call to “kick cancer to the door and begin living again.”
At almost 80, Maude’s zest for life provides a stark contrast to rich, bored 20-year-old Harold’s obsession with death. Eventually, the old woman turns Harold into a believer—and Christine, too.
“No matter what Maude was up against, she prevailed,” said Christine.
“She was a survivor, and so am I.”
Even the movie’s soundtrack by Cat Stevens propelled Christine to run to the piano she hadn’t touched in months. She played the melody and belted out the lyrics to “Trouble”:
“Trouble move away, I’ve seen your face and it’s too much for me today.”
The sunny umbrella that Maude flaunted among a sea of black ones in the movie’s funeral scene led to the name of the nonprofit that Christine founded not long after seeing the movie classic.
Under the shelter of The Yellow Umbrella Organization, Christine talks and sings about something no one wants to talk about: cervical health. She calls the series of concerts The Yellow Umbrella Tour, promoting the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer prevention, and regular screenings and tests for those who may be infected and not know it.
Paint It Yellow
Christine has done 100-plus tour dates and more than 250 events with PAINT IT YELLOW to talk about HPV and cervical cancer prevention. The venues are middle and high schools, colleges, community settings, workplaces and clubs. She also appears in the highly acclaimed documentary, Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic.
“Christine has a kind of radiance about her,” said Melissa Klinko who was instrumental in bringing the Yellow Umbrella tour to Elmira under the auspices of her employer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Back in her hometown, Christine lit up the stage where she’d once performed as a student.
“She turned a life-threatening illness and devastating situation into a positive experience that touches the hearts and minds of young, old and in between,” said Klinko. ”Who knows how many lives she’s saved because of her message?”
HPV Vaccination Rates Low
The CDC reports that nationwide six of 10 parents are choosing to get the HPV vaccine for their children.
In states where vaccination rates are lowest, cervical cancer rates are the highest, according to another national study.
“Many parents would tell me that they didn’t think they needed to worry about that right now with their adolescent son or daughter,” said Nicholas Massa, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.
“However, adolescents should be vaccinated before they become exposed, because protection is greatest before he or she has initiated any type of sexual activity with another person. And, despite how much we try to guide our children and despite how open a relationship we may have with them, we will not likely know when that first time will be.”
Some parents may believe that if they have their children vaccinated against HPV that their kids will begin engaging in sexual activity, especially at a younger age, but studies don’t bear that out, he said, citing one published in Pediatrics.
Dr. Massa also said providers may need to become more comfortable talking about it with their patients and their parents.
Although music and The Yellow Umbrella are her passions, Christine continues to work part-time as an outpatient mental health therapist at Mass General for Children at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Massachusetts. Troubled teens are her specialty.
“Cervical cancer took lots of bits and pieces of my body,” Christine said, “but it didn’t take my voice.”
To hear Christine’s “voice” as she educates others about cervical health, watch the following video.
According to area health departments, an alarming percentage of children in Herkimer and Oneida counties are not screened for lead exposure.
Screening, however, is critical since the majority of homes in the area were built prior to 1978. That’s when lead paint was still commonly used. If children are exposed to lead, they’re at risk for major lifelong complications, including behavioral and social issues, learning disabilities and physical and psychiatric health issues.
The good news? A new initiative is providing local healthcare providers with the technology to more easily screen toddlers at ages one and two. This is when it’s most important to identify and address lead exposure. Using grant funds from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Member and Community Health Improvement program and with support from the Lead-Free Mohawk Valley Coalition, Herkimer County HealthNet is distributing lead screening machines to area primary care offices.
Left: Tom Curnow, Executive Director of Herkimer County HealthNet, Inc.; Center: John Murphy of Magellan Diagnostics; and Right: Alison Swartz, Program Coordinator for Herkimer County HealthNet, Inc. with a Lead Care II machine.
Removing Barriers to Lead Testing
The Lead Care II machine provides an almost instant reading of blood lead levels from a finger-stick blood sample. Herkimer Family Nurse Practitioners, a primary care pediatric practice in Herkimer County, received one of the testing machines in early 2017.
“Before we got the machine, testing children at the appropriate age was a challenge,” said Michelle Gorski. Gorski, along with Charlene Macri, owns the practice.
Charlene Macri, co-owner of Herkimer Family Nurse Practitioners, PLLC., demonstrates how the Lead Care II machine is used on a young patient.
Previously, screening rates for their patients were between 70 and 80 percent. This range is not uncommon among practices without on-site testing capabilities.
Transportation issues and work schedules sometimes prevent parents from having their children tested at the lab. In some cases, parents lose their lab slips, or simply forget to get the test done. Now, with the ability to test for lead at a child’s routine checkup, the practice is on track to screen 100% of their patients at ages one and two.
Making Lead Testing Less Scary
Some parents are understandably hesitant to bring their infants to the lab to have their blood drawn at all.
In a lab, a technician usually tries to obtain a blood sample from a tiny vein in the child’s arm. That can be scary and uncomfortable, even for an adult. As a result, Gorski and Macri estimate that more than 25 percent of the children they refer to labs leave without a successful blood draw.
Alternatively, a finger stick in the familiar primary care office environment is much easier and less painful than a regular blood draw.
A Lead Care II machine.
“We’ve actually tried the LeadCare II lances (the instruments used to prick the child’s finger) on ourselves, and you can barely feel it. Most children don’t even cry when they’re poked. Sometimes, we give them a lollipop or a toy to distract them, and it’s fairly easy.”
Consequently, “we have a much higher success rate (for performing the test) and parents are happier,” she said.
Following Up To Find the Cause
The nurses follow up immediately if a child’s lead level is high. They refer the child to a lab or hospital for a regular blood draw. With the added urgency of a high blood-lead level reading, parents are much more likely to make sure they get the test done.
Based on the findings, Gorski and Macri work with the Herkimer County Health Department to provide appropriate recommendations and resources to the child’s family to eliminate or lessen the family’s exposure to lead.
“Testing is especially important where we live because it’s a high lead exposure area. With this technology, we can decrease the risk for developmental delays in children that lead exposure can cause,” Gorski said.
Why Lead Poisoning Is Dangerous
AHealthierUpstate.org interviewed Alison J. Swartz of Herkimer HealthNet Inc. about the dangers of lead poisoning.
How do children become exposed to lead?
Lead-based paint is the biggest concern. When lead-based paint or varnish is disrupted, paint dust or chips can contaminate a room. Opening and closing windows, for example, can disrupt lead-based paint.
There is potential for lead poisoning if a child breathes in the dust or puts a paint chip in their mouth. Other sources of lead exposure can include soil, old tools, lead pipes, antiques, pottery, children’s toys, certain makeup, spices and jewelry. Check the New York State Department of Health link to learn more about lead and safety recalls at www.nyhealth.gov/environmental/lead.
How can I lessen lead exposure?
No amount of lead is safe in a child’s system. Therefore, we urge parents to keep their children away from home repairs. Parents should also talk to their healthcare provider and local health department about proper cleaning methods to avoid lead paint dust exposure. Pregnant women should heed this advice, too.
Why is it so important to detect elevated blood lead levels early?
The earlier that lead in the blood is detected, the quicker the underlying cause can be addressed. By law, children must be tested at age one. Then, children must be tested a second time at age two. It’s important to remove the child from the environment or eliminate the lead source if lead levels are elevated. Other children in the same environment are also at risk for lead exposure and should receive follow-up care.
The north side of Binghamton, New York, was in desperate need. Not only does it have a high rate of obesity, but it also has the highest rate of poverty in the county. Making matters worse, the only grocery store in walking distance or on the bus line closed. It was hard to find affordable or quality fresh foods.
The Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program
The United Way of Broome County stepped up to help by creating the “Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program.” The program increased residents’ access to healthy food, in particular locally grown fruits and vegetables, and taught them about nutrition. The program also provided physical fitness opportunities for families to combat childhood obesity. But there was still something missing.
More Help Needed For Binghamton
Program coordinators soon learned that more was needed to improve the residents’ health. Community members wanted important health screenings and physical education activities for their families. They’d also benefit from health coaching and chronic disease management, which the program lacked.
“Families didn’t know where to get started,” said Kim Schwartz, program coordinator and physical activity specialist for the United Way of Broome County.
A Customized Approach To Getting Healthy
Excellus BlueCross BlueShield stepped in to partner with the United Way of Broome County with a three-year grant to enhance the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition Program. The program could now expand services to better support the community.
They added a new program, called the “Northside Health Coaching Program,” to provide individual motivational health coaching, physical education opportunities, peer counseling and free health screenings.
“The unique aspect of this program is that all participants will receive a customized approach to getting healthy,” said Jessica Renner, Excellus BCBS regional president.
Small Changes Have a Big Health Impact in Binghamton
The new partnerships and programs have helped the community. Northside community members are now learning about nutrition, taking yoga classes, learning stress management skills, and trying different programs to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“Small adjustments add up to a big difference,” stated Schwartz. “Trained health coaches work with participants to make lasting changes together.”
After six months in the program, one program participant, Laura Race, has lost 89 pounds. She’s gone from a size 22 to a size 16.
“My blood pressure has improved, and my cholesterol has gone down. My doctor told me that health-wise, I’m a whole new person,” said Race.
Food, Fitness, and Bikes, too!
The enhanced Northside Healthy Lifestyles Program also has a new component called Fresh Cycles. The Fresh Cycles program helps kids and their parents with bike maintenance, including donated bikes, and recycling.
Adult volunteers provide hands-on instruction about basic bicycle maintenance and repair. They also educate about safe riding habits, e.g., wearing a helmet, following traffic laws and being visible on the roads. Group rides are open to anyone who wants to peddle through Binghamton’s neighborhoods, parks, and roadways.
“Together with Excellus BCBS, we’re making the health and wellness of Binghamton’s north side our top priority. Our goal is to get people to ‘Move More in 2017’ and take a more active role in their health care,” said Schwartz.
People with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and the staff who help them, whipped up this healthy and very tasty meal. They prepared these foods during the Arc of Monroe’s first-ever Cooking Matters class with Foodlink and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.
The six-week program taught them how to cook healthy meals, safely handle food, read nutrition labels and shop for healthy items. Educators from Foodlink and Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York taught the classes.
The recipes were designed to be simple, healthy and safe to make for those with disabilities. But what I loved about the recipes was that anyone could easily do them!
How to Make Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips
Never again will I buy a bag of tortilla chips from the grocery store. I can make a healthier and lower-salt version with this recipe:
Janet Williams of Penfield helps people with disabilities at the Arc shop for food, prepare meals and do other things to live independently.
Janet Williams of the Arc of Monroe
After completing the Cooking Matters program, Williams said she’s better prepared to help clients live healthier.
“I think it’s harder for this population to be healthy,” Williams said. “Unhealthy foods are easier to access; they’re addicting and seen as more ‘cool’ among their peers.”
Williams learned, for example, that it’s OK to buy canned vegetables and beans, even if there’s added salt in the foods. Just rinse the foods to get rid of the salt before using them.
Having canned beans and corn in your pantry can make it easy to make simple foods, such as a healthy salsa.
“I’m really excited about what we learned,” she added. “It’s seriously good stuff.”
The Cooking Matters class.
The program was made possible by an Excellus BCBS grant, which supported the classes and provided participants with coupons to shop at the Curbside Market truck, Foodlink’s farm stand on wheels. The truck was parked outside every class so participants and other Arc staff members could shop for healthy foods.