For Miami Herald.

Sarah Braxton has spent most of her life taking care of her family.

First she took care of her daughter, Pretious Latae Walker, who had open-heart surgery when she was 21 and died about four years later. Then it was her mother, Pauline Mason, who had a heart attack and a stroke in her early 30s. She died two years ago on Christmas Eve.

Even with the history of heart disease in her family, it wasn’t until recently that Braxton, 51, decided to start caring for herself.

The Miami Gardens resident woke up one morning in early January and knew that something wasn’t right. She was having chest pains and was short of breath.

“I kept telling myself that it was going to go away and I was OK,” Braxton said. “But I knew in the back of my mind it wasn’t. Something was wrong.”

She spent one week in the hospital, where she learned about the Green Family Foundation Health Education Learning Program NeighborhoodHELP. Rolled out about six years ago, the program, also funded by the Batchelor Foundation and other nonprofits, pairs students and faculty from Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and other FIU schools with medically underserved families.

The medical teams make house calls, going door to door to help people stay on track with their medications, assess their vital signs and discuss steps they need to make to improve their health.

Today Braxton is doing much better and credits her turnaround to the program.

“I feel 10 years younger,” she said.

NeighborhoodHelp has expanded to several communities, including North Miami, Miami Gardens, Opa-locka, Hialeah, Miami Lakes and South Miami.

The program also has broadened beyond medicine. The outreach team collaborates with more than 150 organizations, such as schools, places of worship and healthcare providers. Often, these groups refer patients to NeighborhoodHelp.

Once in the program, interprofessional teams of FIU faculty and students from the colleges of medicine, public health and social work, nursing, law and education work with the families, going to their homes, diagnosing their medical conditions and helping them resolve legal or socioeconomic issues that come up. The program also hosts cooking classes and provides mobile health centers.

“Ultimately what is more important than the quality of medical care are these other aspects that are considered non-medical,” said Dr. Fred Anderson, Braxton’s primary care doctor from FIU. “We can provide the best care in the world, but if we neglect all these social determinants — the quality of the communities, the quality of schools, legal concerns — you will never make a significant impact in the overall health.

“It’s much more holistic than simply having blood pressure at a certain number.”

In South Miami, Baptist Health South Florida has stepped in, working with FIU’s medical college and the Green Family Foundation. The program, called the South Miami Green Family Foundation NeighborhoodHELP, works with nearly 100 families.

According to Anderson, access to basic needs like schools, safe environments and gainful employment has not been historically emphasized by doctors because they’re not considered medical factors.

When Braxton left the hospital, she was told to find a doctor immediately. With no health insurance, she wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when NeighborhoodHelp stepped in.

“They kind of took over. They came in and set me up with the doctors I needed to see,” Braxton said, who now has access to home visits from medical professionals.

She has grown attached to one FIU medical school student, Andrew Miller, in particular.

“I look forward to my appointments,” Braxton said. “They made me feel like my life mattered.”

For Miller, the key was to implement realistic changes into Braxton’s life.

“When Sarah and I first started talking, our conversation began with what changes she wanted to make,” Miller said. “It wasn’t me just giving her a list. So many times in medicine, doctors will do that for their patients and it’s not something that they want or can necessarily do.”

For the first time, Braxton is taking her medication regularly and is eating a more nutritious and well-balanced diet. Vegetables now make up half of her dinner plate, and she has replaced sugary and salty snacks with almonds, pistachios or carrots.

She and Miller also discussed different ways to exercise, which for Braxton is key because of her sedentary desk job. She loves to walk, but plans to start Zumba soon.

“I really do need to get back to a healthier weight because I know better. Especially after taking care of mom and my daughter,” said Braxton, who helped her daughter, Pretious Latae Walker, lose a significant amount of weight.

At one point, doctors had predicted that Walker would live for only three to six months and suggested she be placed in hospice. Instead, Braxton took Walker home. She weighed almost 600 pounds and with her mother’s help, she lost more than 400 pounds. Walker lived for three more years.

Today, Braxton’s advice to others is simple: Stay positive.

“Believe what your doctors say and work at it,” she said. “Don’t give up.”


For more information on the Green Family Foundation Health Education Learning Program (NeighborhoodHELP), call 305-919-4594.
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