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Katie Jarrell, UAMS East: Delta Area Health Education Center

“Once you get that Delta mud on your toes, it doesn’t wash off; you’ll always find yourself coming back for more.”

If the director of UAMS East, the health education center I am working at this summer, had said these words to me upon my arrival in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, I would not have understood their meaning. Yet after spending eight weeks in what is known as the Delta region of the Mississippi River, working in a town of approximately 12,000 people and living in a town of 1,186 people, I can say that I understand her perfectly. Once you experience the Delta, learn about its history, and get to know its people, you cannot help but be changed by its uniqueness.

When I first arrived in Marvell, Arkansas, a town 20 miles from UAMS East, I noticed cornfields for miles, some of the largest and most intricate farm equipment I had ever seen, and one lonely, Mexican restaurant. I noted that a green sign proudly proclaimed a population of 1,186 and learned that there was a “John Deere side of town” from one of the locals. Hailing from a small town in West Virginia, I easily slipped into a routine in this small town. Yet the easy way of life in this Arkansas farmland is not without its own set of complications. Unemployment, racial tension, and high poverty statistics plague Phillips County, a county that was once the wealthiest in Arkansas. A center for trade along the Mississippi River, families were once able to amass great fortunes through farming and slave ownership. While it currently ranks first for diabetes and stroke-related deaths and last for average household income, much of Phillips County suffers from poverty caused by the mechanization of farming.

Working at one of the University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s health education centers has allowed me to gain some insight into the unique medical complications that trouble this rural community. Although I thought I understood what it meant to provide healthcare in a rural setting, after working at a free clinic in my native West Virginia as well as one in Rockbridge County (Va.), the residents of Helena-West Helena have shown me that no two rural communities are the same. Aided by a diet full of fried food and a love for Burger Shack’s Best Coke in Town, adult-onset diabetes, commonly known as type-II diabetes, is a very prominent health problem in the Delta. Unfortunately, many diabetics are not aware that they have this disease; I was exposed to this troubling reality during several opportunities to conduct blood sugar screenings and Hemoglobin A1C tests. Several patients assured me that they were not diabetic, only to have blood sugar readings that confirmed the opposite. A few patients were reluctant to even undergo screenings for the disease, proving that apprehension is a huge barrier to providing effective health care in this Delta town.

However, employees of UAMS East work hard to combat this apprehension, by spreading current health and nutrition information throughout the community. With the belief that knowledge is power, UAMS East hopes to expose young children to healthy eating habits and nutrition, with the hope that these habits will become a part of their lifestyle. Health care educators work with students throughout the school year in a program known as Kids for Health, as well as during the summer in exercise programs that include nutrition lessons. Another mission of UAMS East is to encourage students to pursue health-care careers, by offering camps to interested students of all ages. While working with student-focused summer outreach programs, I made countless batches of Flubber, and watched as students played with it in awe. During one camp we dissected the heart of a sheep, and I felt incredibly proud when students were able to successfully identify the aorta. Along with frequently attending community health fairs, UAMS East also offers free blood sugar and cholesterol screenings, HIV testing and counseling, and diabetic education classes to those interested, as part of their overall community outreach. My work with UAMS East has shown me the true impact that health care education can have on a small community, especially in the Delta where word travels quickly. The health care issues that many residents face are chronic, but preventive; UAMS East’s role in the community is crucial, because knowledge is a key part of disease prevention.

Although my daily routine at UAMS East is not typical – it might consist of a field trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, participating in a workout class with a group of 80-90 year old women known as Classics, or attending a health fair to offer blood pressure and cholesterol screenings – each day and each new experience has allowed me to get to know the people of Helena-West Helena. While the environment in the Delta may sound dire, the people here have not given up in the face of difficult circumstances. Hopeful and resilient, the population of this small community does not think of themselves as downtrodden, but quite the opposite. Helena-West Helena residents have great pride in their history, their people, and their community. Ask anyone here and they will admit that their town used to be a place of more grandeur. Yet with reasons to leave, the backbone of the community has stayed, because they too believe in this Delta community; they have a layer of Delta mud on their toes.

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