Dr. Brewer has FAITH in Rochester
When Mayo Clinic Dr. LaPrincess Brewer took the stage last month in Charlotte, N.C., Jackie Johnson couldn't help beaming with pride. Johnson, a vocal advocate within Rochester's Black community, hasn't stopped singing Brewer's praises as the Brewer's success has resonated across the country, even as it flies under-the-radar locally.
Brewer's FAITH program, an acronym for Fostering African-American Improvement in Total Health, was among the featured attractions at the 28th annual Healthy Churches 2020 National Conference that was held in her hometown. Its initial success in Baltimore and the ensuing impact in Minnesota since Brewer arrived at Mayo in 2013 has prompted significant accolades for the charismatic 35-year-old cardiologist.
In a nutshell, Brewer connected with African-American churches through Johnson to help members improve their health through physical activity and nutrition. Four Rochester churches have enrolled in the FAITH program, and Brewer's since added more in the Twin Cities. Many attendees of the recent North Carolina conference expressed interest, which has raised hopes that it could soon go national.
"This is the first lifestyle intervention in the African-American community in Olmsted County — period," Brewer said. "They really wanted to have their voice be heard."
The FAITH program is considered a critical first step for combatting a significant health concern within the African-American community. While heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death among all Americans, Blacks face increased risks due to high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
Brewer was recently named to the "40 Under 40 Minority Leaders in Healthcare" list compiled by The National Minority Quality Forum, in addition to winning competitive monetary awards to support her ongoing research.
"She's low-key about all of this," said Johnson, who helped Brewer connect with Rochester churches four years ago. "She doesn't like the accolades, but it's good to let someone smell the flowers. She's such a wonderful example of a young African-American who has got her knowledge to the point where she's reaching her goals, then reaching back to help someone else reach their goals. She is giving us this information that is so badly needed in this community."
Mayo honored Brewer's groundbreaking efforts by flying medical personnel from its Rochester, Florida and Arizona campuses to attend the North Carolina conference, while also covering the full cost for two representatives from each participating church to attend the four-day event.
In recognition of her work with the FAITH program, the Post Bulletin has selected Brewer as its 2016 Person of the Year in health care. Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a Mayo cardiologist and medical director of Mayo's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, says it's a worthy honor for her mentee.
"Dr. Brewer is distinguishing herself in her work on the prevention of cardiovascular disease in the Black and African-American communities, and this work is serving a great need in our community," Hayes said. "Her compassion, advocacy, education, and research in this area is so important. Her partnership-building has led to insights that have already accelerated Mayo's efforts to address and ultimately eliminate health disparities."
Dozens of FAITH program participants attended a Dec. 3 cooking demonstration at the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, where renowned chef Cary Neff was brought in to address the crowd. He emphasized Brewer's teachings of how to shop smarter, eat healthier and live a more active lifestyle — with built-in credibility thanks to prior appearances on The Oprah Show, The Today Show and the Food Network, among others.
The unique opportunity was orchestrated by Brewer, but it's become par for the course. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Mayo medical students and other specialists have pitched in since 2012 to help track data and educate participants in hopes of reducing health disparities among African-Americans.
The tangible results remain a work-in-progress, but the impacts have been immediately obvious — particularly on Sundays. Potlucks at participating churches have turned away from fried foods in favor of healthier options in hopes of reducing waistlines and increasing life spans.
Lorone Shepard, pastor of Christway Full Gospel Ministries, says she's overhauled her diet and lost 9 pounds since enrolling in the FAITH program, while feeling much more energetic.
"For Rochester to have a doctor that comes in and helps people of color, who have a habit of not eating right, I think it's fantastic," Shepard said. "Everybody loves Dr. Brewer. You don't see them like that anymore. You wouldn't think she's a cardiologist. She comes down to your level and does not have a proud bone in her body. It's like a mother teaching a child how to eat for the first time."
The program now features a partnership with the YMCA in Rochester and St. Paul to allow for free memberships and recently unveiled a new app to help automate the FAITH program. Brewer hopes that will make it easier to replicate the 10-week program in other cities around the country, as educational modules and analytics replace some of Brewer's personal interaction.
She hopes to continue relying upon Black churches as her vehicle to break what's been a destructive historical cycle.
"The African-American church is the centerpiece and the pillar of the Black community," Brewer said. "They're the center of the spiritual and cultural life, so it was a great fit (for the FAITH program).
"Part of my passion is to increase awareness of this (health) issue and be an advocate for these issues where (African-Americans) haven't had their voices heard," Brewer said. "This is an opportunity to be at the table and have more community and civic engagement, because (the participants) … really want to engage.
In the now infamous story, Johns Hopkins Medicine used Henrietta Lacks' "immortal" cells in 1950s research without her knowledge or consent. The uproar following that disclosure in a 2010 tell-all book prompted some initial hesitation to enroll in Brewer's FAITH program.
However, Rochester pastor Kenneth Rowe, of Christ's Church of the Jesus Hour, now says it's been "a Godsend."
"We're just really not too trusting when it comes to the medical field," Rowe said. "But having her come into our congregation, it helped people to trust. Information is powerful. We've been able to tap into the professionalism of Mayo … and it's been a Godsend for all of us.
"Food is such a big draw as far as the church is concerned. Whenever we serve meals now, our food committee is focused on healthy eating. It has such a positive effect on our younger people and that really carries over to our older folks."
Brewer helped alleviate concerns by promising complete transparency with the FAITH program. She's followed through by providing personalized results to each participant after each 10-week program, allowing them to track their weight, blood pressure and other important medical markers.
Those promises helped convince Johnson this was a worthwhile endeavor.
"People saw she was invested," Johnson said. "She really wanted to help the African-American community live a healthier lifestyle, then pass this one to family and friends."
As impactful as Brewer's work has been, it almost wasn't to be. She was in her second year of chemical engineering at Howard University when she switched gears to pursue medicine. She spent time at George Washington School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins before accepting a temporary assignment at Mayo in 2012.
Mayo hired Brewer full-time in July, cementing the FAITH program's future in Rochester.
"Dr. Brewer's work in the community through the churches is such an important contribution to Rochester, and her research from this work will make a difference for many," says Dr. Chet Rihal, interventional cardiologist and chair of Cardiovascular Services at Mayo Clinic. "Her passion and energy for this work is obvious, and we are fortunate to have her at Mayo and in Rochester."