Waters and Devine Headline 5th Annual First Ladies Health Symposium
The First Ladies Health Initiative held its 5th Annual Los Angeles and Orange County First Ladies Health Luncheon symposium at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on November 21.
The forum was designed to bring social and health awareness to minority residents of Southern California and abroad. The fine dining, upscale event was sponsored by Walgreens and featured several distinguished guests and keynote speakers.
Both U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and actress Loretta Devine delivered keynote addresses, while a panel of minority health experts, advocates and survivors alike, took the stage to discuss topics ranging from HIV/AIDS in African-American communities to the benefits of pre-screening and testing to prevent disease.
Waters, who was pinned as an honorary First Lady, opened the program and shared stark statistics on chronic illnesses afflicting minority communities.
“According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), Africans-Americans are the racial group most affected by HIV. New HIV infections in African-Americans are 8 times that of whites based on population size,” Waters said.
She continued to roll out the findings by stating, “In 2010, African-American women accounted for 29% of the estimated new HIV infections among all adult and adolescent African-Americans and Latinos account for 21% of new HIV infections, although only 16% of the population is Latino.”
One of Waters' most profound accomplishments in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention includes her acquisition of additional funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative, which “provides grants to community based organizations for HIV/AIDS women and prevention programs serving African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American communities.”
Waters also said that the Initiative, which she spearheaded in 1998, “enables healthcare providers serving minority communities to expand their capacity to deliver culturally and linguistically appropriate care and services.” Since 1999, funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative has increased from an initial $156 million to more than $400 million today.
Maxine Waters cited other chronic diseases in minority communities such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the American Cancer Society, African-Americans represent the largest rate of racial and ethnic groups combined who suffer from major types of cancer.
Waters closed by thanking the first ladies for their work in increasing the number of screenings from 20,000 to over 100,000 in the last several years. “You’re using your voices to help changes lives in church and beyond the church walls,” she said.
Panelist Sara Soulati, CEO of Global Cardio Care, explained about Enhanced External Counterpulsation (EECP), a modern therapy practice designed for patients suffering from cardiovascular disease.
Coupled with a plant-based dietary plan, Soulati said, “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s about what you’ve been doing every day. And in order to really fix the problem, you’ve got to find out what you’re doing that’s causing the problem.”
Panelist Bridget Gordon, whose ex-husband transmitted the HIV/AIDS virus to her via his extramarital relationships, spoke to the audience about her journey through life after the diagnosis and how she’s worked to overcome he stigma associated with the virus.
She established the Bridget B Foundation, which offers resources and encouragement to individuals who have been given the virus while in a trusted relationship. As a testament to triumph, Gordon shared how she’s coped after spending most of her post-diagnosis life in isolation.
“People ask me why I have six dogs, it’s because my dogs don’t judge me,” Gordon said.
“If you are HIV, speak up. As hard as it is to deal with the judgment, and the stigma and the discrimination, if we don’t speak out about it, if we don’t say something, it will continue the way it is, and more women are going to die,” she declared.
In the years since Gordon’s diagnosis, she won a multi-million dollar Supreme Court settlement, remarried, and gave birth to a beautiful daughter who remains HIV negative.
In a comical and lighthearted manner, Loretta Devine closed out the luncheon and spoke of her personal journey with diabetes and the commonality many African Americans have in being slow to take preventative action.
“Diabetes is the invisible disease, you don’t even feel it. You don’t even know you have it,” said Devine. “We have a long history of not trusting no doctors, [it’s almost like] you have to be real, real, real sick.”
As a remedy, Devine summoned the first ladies to speak with their church members to explain the importance of getting checked.
“Everybody ought to have a chance to live, and to live well. People are afraid, and they don’t know when someone is speaking in their best interest,” she insisted.
In Devine’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” she offered solace to those in attendance who were either fighting for resolve or suffering from the various illnesses that continue to oppress minority communities.
The First Ladies Health Initiative is spearheaded by Executive Director Tracey Alston, who has guided first ladies across the county in tackling health disparities plaguing minorities in America.
John Gremer, Walgreens director of community affairs, acknowledged our individual capacities to make a difference by noting, “We can all be great because we can all serve.”