In Focus: Women Take Health Care to Heart

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Health care is a multi-faceted dilemma facing all people in southeast Ohio, especially women.

Lack of insurance is just one problem, but a growing number of women's needs are not being met by the existing healthcare facilities in the area.

Heart Disease, pregnancy and breast cancer are just a few of the issues women often find themselves leaving the area to combat.

Criminal in the Kitchen

The criminal killing more than 300 women each year in Athens County alone may live in your kitchen. Heart disease is the number one killer of women nationwide.

Doctors call heart disease a “food-borne illness” because the three factors that increase a person’s chance of developing the disease — high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes — are often caused by unhealthy eating habits.

“What are the foods that every time they pass our lips injure the lining of our arteries,” said Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a preventative medicine consultant, “oil, dairy, meat, fish, fowl, sugar, coffee with caffeine.”

Esselstyn says the disease is more preventable than treatable. Preventing heart disease doesn’t require an expensive trip to the doctor’s office.

At an Appalachian Health Summit produced by Live Healthy Appalachia in Athens last year, Esselstyn along with speaker and author Dr. James Prochaska and the famous “Chef AJ” stressed the importance of eating only unprocessed foods to avoid those artery-damaging foods.

Can You Afford to Live Healthy?

Buying plant-based foods is affordable, according to Janis Schriner, who just switched to a 100 percent plant-based diet. In fact, she says it's cheaper to switch to an unprocessed, healthy diet because avoiding the cost of meat is a huge savings.  But not everyone in Southeast Ohio has Schriner's resources.

According to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, nearly 14,000 people received food assistance in 2011 in Athens County.

Although most people do not donate fresh fruits and vegetables to food pantries, people who need food assistance can still get those unprocessed foods at places like the Athens Farmers Market, where food assistance benefits are accepted.

Eating right paves the path to living heart healthy, but health experts at Ohio University say knowing your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels is another way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Women are most at risk of getting heart disease in southeast Ohio because of the poverty in the Appalachian region, but getting screened for the three problems most likely to cause heart disease doesn’t have to cost money.

Community health programs sponsored by the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine offer free health screenings all throughout southeast Ohio.

Anyone can get screened for total cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure while fasting patients can even get a total lipid profile.

Carole Merckle, a community heath educator at OU, says the goal of the community health programs and free screenings is education.

“We don’t want to say your cholesterol is 350; sorry about that,” she said. “We want to say your cholesterol is 350, we want to educate them on what that means, educate them on the benefits of exercise, healthy eating, what types of foods they need to limit and watch.”

Complicated: Pregnancy in Southeast Ohio

Jenn Theis is an Athens mom who was caught in between. “I was teetering on 34, 35 weeks. At that point I would have most likely had a healthy birth…” Theis said, “but they said unless I was in the middle of labor, they [O'Blenness Hospital] wouldn’t take me before 35 weeks.”

Southeast Ohio lacks in the ability to help mothers with complicated or dangerous pregnancies. Jenn Theis was one of those mothers. During her second pregnancy, Theis had early contractions and her doctors feared that she would be forced to deliver at Nationwide Hospital in Columbus – the only hospital in the area equipped to handle her sensitive pregnancy.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, 50% of the births in the state occur outside of the eight metropolitan areas where 95% of neonatal doctors practice.

Each hospital in Ohio is given a classification determining how early in her pregnancy a mother can deliver there. Out of all of the hospitals in the region, Bethesda Hospital in Zanesville is one of very few capable of taking mothers who deliver earlier than 35 weeks.

Nationwide is the only facility in the area with the ability to deliver pre-term babies younger than 32 weeks.  If a mother in Southeast Ohio were to deliver early, she would more than likely be transferred to Nationwide by helicopter or ambulance. 

The Theis’ are one of a small number of Appalachian families able to afford the rising costs of neonatal care. 

"I can't think that in this county that people would be able to afford it," Theis said, "but it's an emergency situation so it has to be done."

According to the state of Ohio, Nationwide Hospital’s mean cost for a seriously complicated premature child is $103,567 – without the additional expenditure of an ambulance or life-flight from Athens.

Even for healthy pregnancies, lack of insurance is often a huge financial burden on families in Southeast Ohio.

Appalachia has the highest rate of uninsured, with more than 22% of families in this region lacking health insurance. According to the Ohio Family Health Survey assessed by Ohio State University, these uninsured families don’t have access to the same sources of care or have their necessary health needs met.

The Birth Circle

One local strategy aimed at helping new moms navigate the huge financial cost of pregnancy is the Athens Birth Circle. The Birth Circle meets monthly to develop community among expecting and new mothers in the area, as well as provide assistance to growing families in need.

Molly Wales is a mother of two and the executive director of the Birth Circle.

"We [The Birth Circle] offer a lot. We have a Meals for Moms program where once your baby comes Birth Circle parents will prepare and deliver meals to your home." Wales said, "we have a lending library with hundreds of books and DVDs on birth and parenting. The lending library also has birth pools and breast pumps and slings. We have a play group and an online forum and support groups."

In addition, the birth circle provides options to the traditional hospital birth by connecting interested mothers with midwives who can provide care during an at-home birth.

Pink Power

Courage, strength and hope.  That's what the color pink now means to the one-in-eight women who will likely develop breast cancer. The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) reports that breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women. 

Janice Blower, 61, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. As one could expect, her life was changed forever. She underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy in order to beat her illness. Although she won her fight, she admits she couldn’t have done it alone.

“I was able to keep plugging away with my good support from my family, and also I was in a support group, that helped also.”

Since she has defeated the disease, she has made a personal effort to help women battling the same war. 

Blower is involved with the O’Bleness Women’s Health Fund, which “helps women who can’t afford mammograms or breast care.”

The fund has helped provide O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio with new mammogram equipment. “It’s been improving,” Blower said when asked about the care patients can receive here in Southeast Ohio. “We feel pretty confident with the care here now,” she says.

O'Bleness teams up with Athens Cancer Center to treat it's breast cancer patients.

Here in Athens, Ohio, these brave women form support groups like Blower did during her fight. A well-known event in the area to raise money and awareness for breast cancer is The Pink Tea Luncheon.

The event is a family-friendly atmosphere that raises money for the O’Bleness Women’s Health Fund. The theme for 2012 was “Tickled Pink.”

Women and their families were able to shop at the markets set up in Baker Ballroom at Ohio University and also enjoy a performance by comedian, Mark Klein. The most important part of the event is the announcement of the Women of Inspiration Award winner, who is nominated by attendees. 

Another group in Southeast Ohio that helps underserved or uninsured women receive breast care is Power Me Pink, a program out of Southeastern Med in Guernsey County.

Through a grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the program has been able to provide women in need with breast health education, clinical exams, mammograms, and additional testing if necessary. 

For these women's health care problems in southeast Ohio, there are local solutions. Women can find funding resources, support groups and educational programs online and in person. Whether it's heart disease, breast cancer or pregnancy complications, women in southeast Ohio are not alone.