When she became a Jackson Heart Study scholar in 2003, Marshala Lee, M.D., M.P.H., quickly found herself immersed in some of the most troubling health issues of the day. At the time, she was a pre-medicine major at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and had become alarmed after learning that the precursors for heart disease start early in life. As a scholar, it didn’t take long for her to channel that concern into real research: she began studying the impact that heart disease education and awareness could have on Mississippi adolescents who were overweight or obese.
She learned to talk with parents and teenagers about the importance of lowering their risk of heart disease through healthy eating and lifestyle changes. She reported her findings as they emerged. And she analyzed and compared the data to other youth from various geographical areas across the United States. The experience, Lee says, was “eye opening and very informative.”
Today, Lee is blending that rich undergraduate work with her current work as a family medicine physician at ChristianaCare in New Castle County, Delaware. She serves as the physician leader at one of the 20 health centers supported by ChristianaCare located in schools predominately serving students from underrepresented backgrounds. The main goals, she says, are to keep students healthy and absenteeism low.
As the new director of the Harrington Value Institute Community Partnership Fund at ChristianaCare, Lee directs a grant that supports community organizations working to address the social determinants of health. The grant also provides research and program evaluation technical assistance to local community organizations. Lee also directs the Fund’s Translational Research Internship and mentors students from underrepresented backgrounds looking to make the most of their gap year before attending medical school. This, she considers the most important aspect of her job—a way to pay forward the caring she says her mentors showed her. She even designed the public health curriculum based on topics that were part of the Jackson Heart Study curriculum. “What I learned as a scholar really enhanced my clinical knowledge and added skills and tools to my toolbelt” she says.
Her work at the Fund is hardly the only way Lee keeps her feet planted in the community. Similar to the Jackson Heart Study which focuses on cardiovascular health disparities in African Americans, Lee is also leading the development of a new community initiative to address cardiovascular disease disparities in African American men. This initiative will train licensed barbers and other community members to accurately check the blood pressures of barbershop clientele, as well as encourage them to live healthier lives and seek additional care from a healthcare provider. The theory—which has been affirmed through pilot studies—is that black men, who have especially high rates of hypertension, trust their barbers and may be more inclined to follow advice given in a place they feel good about—the barbershop.
“I’m excited about this initiative,” Lee says. “We’re going to screen the guys and link them to care at local health centers, but also continue to engage them in educational sessions and seminars.” And, recent NHLBI-funded studies shows that it can work. “We hope to see significant improvements in their health in a sustainable format in as little as one year,” she says.
Lee says she’s found that working outside the traditional clinical setting can make the biggest impact. “People need access to culturally and linguistically appropriate medical information so they can take an active role in their health, regardless of their age,” Lee says. “I look forward to tailoring the information to meet their needs. I enjoy being a trusted resource and partner for my community’s health and wellness.”