Health equity trailblazers recognized
Dr. Kemi Doll, Marcela Suárez Díaz and Sea Mar’s community health workers honored for work with key underserved groups
May 21, 2020 • By Diane Mapes, Fred Hutch News Service
Dr. Kemi Doll and Marcela Leonor Suárez Díaz
Two health equity trailblazers were honored for their work in community building and health disparities research during a virtual ceremony on Friday, May 15.
The awards were presented by the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, housed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The award presentations are traditionally part of the OCOE’s annual Pathways to Equity Symposium, which was rescheduled due to the pandemic.
“The issue of health equity is perhaps as crucial now as it ever has been,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch in his opening remarks, viewable on OCOE’s Facebook page.
“It’s being highlighted right now when you look at what’s happening with COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on black and brown communities in the United States,” he said. “It makes a commitment to health equity research and to coming up with policies to address this even more urgent.”
Lynch praised the OCOE and its leaders, Dr. Jay Mendoza and Kathy Briant, for the community partnerships they’re building that will better help people of color, indigenous people, rural communities and other underserved groups who are particularly vulnerable to health disparities such as cancer — and now COVID-19.
He also acknowledged the Hutch’s longtime public health researcher Dr. Beti Thompson, professor emeritus of the Hutch’s Health Disparities Research Center, from which OCOE grew and for whom both awards are named.
Now retired, Thompson spent 30 years working to eliminate cancer health disparities in the U.S. and especially within the farmworker communities of Washington state’s Yakima Valley, home to the Hutch’s Center for Community Health Promotion.
“I’m so honored to have something named for me before my demise,” she said as she virtually presented the first award to UW/Fred Hutch physician-scientist Dr. Kemi Doll.
‘A bright and focused light’
Doll received the 2020 Beti Thompson Community Health Equity Researcher Award to honor her work as an “outstanding scientist” from the Fred Hutch/UW Cancer Consortium “who’s made significant contributions to cancer health equity research and is carrying on the mantle of Dr. Thompson.”
A gynecologic oncologist and health equity researcher, Doll works to achieve better outcomes for black women with endometrial cancer.
Her research has shown some black women don’t recognize the warning signs of this cancer and don’t always receive the same level of care from providers. Black women also have a higher rate of aggressive biological subtypes of endometrial cancers. The result? They suffer markedly worse outcomes from what many consider a “relatively survivable cancer.”
Doll engaged with local and national patient advocates to create ECANA, the Endometrial Cancer Action Network for African-Americans, a collaboration of patients, survivors, doctors, community advocates and leaders that functions as a research project, support network and tool for policy change.
UW’s Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, a gynecologic oncologist, said Doll has done “foundational research to understand and address root causes of health disparities in black women with endometrial cancer” and praised her “tireless voice” in advocating for more diverse trainees, scientists and physicians.
UW colleague and OB-GYN Dr. Renata Urban said Doll has “shone a bright and focused light on the disparate care of African-American women with endometrial cancer … and truly helped broaden my vision on the inequities both in clinical care and in medical education.”
Accepting the honor via Zoom, Doll thanked Thompson for the “incredible legacy of her work” and lauded the OCOE for honoring those who conduct health equity research.
“I am very grateful for the recognition of the work I do in partnership with black women with endometrial cancer,” she said. “These awards are more than just gold stars. Health disparity research is undervalued and there is systematic underfunding for research in topics of health equity. These awards matter.”
‘Bringing hope in the middle of difficulty’
Marcela Leonor Suárez Díaz and the Sea Mar Community Health Centers' promotores de salud (or community health workers) program received the 2020 Beti Thompson Community Trailblazer Award for their “extraordinary impact in the health disparities field and in recognition of their service and dedication to health equity.”
They were honored for their work bringing culturally and linguistically appropriate services to the farmworker communities in Washington’s Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Suárez Díaz, Sea Mar’s Promotores coordinator, and her team act as a bridge between the farmworker communities and county health services there, offering on-site mobile health and dental clinics, nutrition classes and more at farmworkers’ camp sites in spring and summer and workshops on disease prevention and other health topics during fall and winter.
Mainly, they build trust, listen to what those communities need and try to provide those resources.
Dillon van Rensburg, a community health educator with the OCOE program, said Suárez Díaz “demonstrates firsthand the importance and effectiveness of community-based participatory practices.”
“Her level of commitment, years of work, and community trust-building has turned conversations into action,” he said. “Her impact on the health and well-being of the farmworker communities will be felt for years to come.”
In accepting the award, Suárez Díaz thanked and introduced Sea Mar colleagues Estela Salgado Rivera and Oscar Alcón Cristóbal, who work with her in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
“Our mission is to bring hope in the middle of difficulty,” Suárez Díaz said. “Today we are witness to a very great miracle: recognition. Recognition of the work of this team who have given everything from their hearts.”
She also expressed appreciation for the farmworkers keeping the public fed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Agricultural work is one of the most difficult and least recognized [forms of] work,” she said. “Finally, we recognize that it has been, it is, and it will always be essential work.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.