Event targets men's health

Conference provides free screenings, tests for African-Americans

June 22, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

For a grown man, David Murphy looked a little sheepish. Having to admit that he didn't take good care of his health was not something that came naturally.

Murphy, a 57-year-old publisher, had a lot of company yesterday at a conference - the first of its kind - that targeted the health concerns of African-American men. Any who showed up at the Baltimore Convention Center, and hundreds did, were provided with free screenings for all manner of ills, from diabetes to hypertension, immune deficiencies to heart disease.

"I'm not feeling 100 percent, and that's why I'm here," said Murphy, who publishes an online business and consumer guide, The Maryland Portal, and who admitted that he is uninsured and does not have a physician. "I'm being screened for everything. When you get to my age, you start getting the aches and pains, and you've got to get checked."

As a nurse was about to draw a droplet of blood from his finger, the only thing Murphy asked was not to be photographed "screaming and hollering."

The notion was apt, given the reluctance of many people to see a physician once in a while and to pay attention to whatever emerges from the visit.

"African-American men have a problem going to the doctor," said Joe Cooke, an educator in the HIV/AIDS unit of the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He said there were enormous health problems in the black community that were not being addressed, primarily because, he said, African-American men often disregard their higher propensity toward certain diseases that do not affect other races to the same degree.

"The disparities for all of this - prostate cancer, HIV, diabetes - are alarming, much higher than in the majority community," Cooke, 50, said after discussing his own cardiovascular system with a specialist. "We need to educate people. If you're not getting treatment for a lot of these killers, they're ticking time bombs waiting to go off."

Some of the tests were for less alarming conditions. When Mike Jenkins, a 40-year-old travel agent, drove up from Columbia with his son Michael, 13, for the conference, the first thing he spotted was a man who appeared to be weighing people on an old-fashioned metal scale. It turned out to be a machine that, when stepped on, calibrates the distribution of the body's weight on the feet, and thus whether the person's stance is tilted toward one side or the other.

Jenkins found out that his left foot carried four pounds more than his right, a common situation, said Michael Boyd, the ergonomics technician who performed the analysis. He recommended that Jenkins see a chiropractor. Boyd also checked the level of Jenkins' shoulders and hips to see whether his spine was in alignment. It wasn't - and that's common, too.

"I thought that at my age I'd be worse," said Jenkins, who used to play basketball and has occasionally painful knees to prove it. When he admitted to Boyd that he sometimes asks his son to walk on his back to crack it, Boyd advised him not to.

Jenkins then did the rounds of the other screenings. "Might as well," he said, as his son waited patiently by his side, professing not to be bored. His dad was unsure what his cholesterol test would conclude. "We all love french fries, but we got to self-contain," he said.

Elsewhere at the conference, visitors were informed about options for medical insurance, organ donations and other matters. In a large meeting hall, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein and other officials and physicians gave talks on the evils of sugar, tobacco and stress, the wonders of exercise, and the perils of avoiding regular medical counsel.

"Everyone's heart is important - we don't discriminate," said Jean Seiler, a patient-care coordinator at St. Joseph Medical Center Heart Institute, who energetically encouraged anyone who would listen to sit down at her table and discuss a healthy heartbeat.

"People go, 'Oh yeah, I know my blood pressure is high,' but don't do much about it," Seiler said. "There are risk factors you can't change, but there are things you can do, like exercise, eat healthy, cut down on salt, eat your vegetables, don't smoke. And eat less."

Seiler said that African-American men tend to have a greater incidence of high blood pressure than whites, which increases their risk for heart disease, strokes and kidney failure. Her colleague Ruth Linde, stroke center coordinator at St. Joseph, said there are more strokes among African-American men than in any other ethnic or racial group, and that many of them are attributable to hypertension.

"We don't necessarily know why that is," Linde said. "Hypertension is called the 'silent killer.' People feel fine, so unless you go to an event like this, or go to a doctor regularly, you won't have it checked."

Dr. Jean Ford, who directs the prostate screening program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, said African-American men get prostate cancer at a rate 60 percent higher than white men in a given year, and are 2.4 times more likely to die of it. Yesterday's event, he said, is a good step toward bringing down those numbers.

Theodore Wynder, who, as an enrollment counselor for the Maryland Primary Adult Care program, helps people find insurance, said fear "is the only thing that stops us" from seeking medical help.

Murphy, the publisher who spoke of aches and pains, said as he left the conference that he needs "a little maintenance." He even promised to hire a personal trainer.

"Now I know what I'm up against," he said. "A lot of us don't face the facts. I've got grandchildren, and I would love to see them grown."



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