A Prescription for a Better Life
Every step felt like a painful electric shock. By 10:30 in the morning, her boss told Jolanda White to go home. By noon, she was in the emergency room of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital.
Then, the amputation.
Jolanda remembers it clearly. Dr. Myron Hall, an MLKCH podiatrist, came to her bedside to break the bad news: she had a bacterial infection in the bones of her foot, exacerbated by the Type 2 diabetes that ran in her family and had killed her mother.
“Oh no, I don’t want this,” she told her doctor. But there were no other options. Her blood sugar levels were off the charts. Both feet were at risk. The infection could no longer be controlled by antibiotics alone.
“I was a very, very sick girl,” she recalls.
Three surgeries and 13 days later, Jolanda emerged from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) with one less toe and a wicked series of scars up and down both feet.
She also emerged with a new care team—Hall, primary care doctor Juan Cabrales, and Alex Rivera, a social worker at the MLK Community Medical Group (MLKCMG). Jolanda says that care team, along with an innovative pilot program that gives diabetes sufferers the keys to their own recovery, saved her life.
The program is called “Recipe for Health.”
Food as medicine
Jolanda grew up in a large, loving New Orleans family that thought about food in the “more is more” sense.
“My mom had a lot of kids to feed, so she would cook these big meals and we didn’t know when to stop,” she recalls. “We weren’t overweight, so we thought we were doing the right thing.”
As an adult, Jolanda relied on fast food for many of her meals. “Hamburger, cheeseburger, name a burger it was my best friend,” she says with a shake of her head.
In 2012 she was diagnosed with diabetes at a hospital in Pittsburgh. She says she received little guidance on how to manage the disease.
“They were very nonchalant,” she recalls. “They made it seem like you just take this pill and you’re fine.”
Only when she became a patient of the MLK Community Medical Group did she first hear that diabetes could be managed in ways that did not involve drugs.
In June, Dr. Cabrales told her she was eligible for a new pilot program for people with severe diabetes. The program combined regular check-ins with her doctor with a “food RX” she could take home.
That prescription included a weekly box of fresh fruits and vegetables patients pick up at the hospital, recipes, as well as cooking classes and lots of staff support.
“I was so excited about the program,” Jolanda said. “I knew it was time to make a change.
Path to recovery
In South LA, death from diabetic complications is 72% higher than Los Angeles County as a whole. Much of this has to do with an acute lack of primary care and specialist providers that might have helped to prevent or better manage the disease. Like Jolanda, people get poor or little care at the start of their diagnosis. Left untreated, the disease can take a catastrophic turn.
At MLKCH, diabetic amputation, along with wound care, is the hospital’s most frequent procedure.
“We’re seeing the end results of many years of neglect and lack of access to care,” says Dr. Jorge Reyno, MLKCH vice president of population health, whose team oversees the “Recipe for Health” program. “We know that it’s not enough to treat people in our hospital. We have to give them the life tools they can take home and use to keep their recovery on track.”
More than 144 patients are now enrolled in the Recipe for Health program. They must meet strict criteria of need and be referred by a medical group physician. Social worker Alex Rivera, who oversees the cooking classes at the medical group’s Compton clinic, says the point of the classes is to reassure people that healthy eating can also be delicious.
“The recipes are good, not just good for you,” Alex says.
Jolanda agrees. The squash salad she made as a result of the program is now her signature dish. She also knows that the skin of a zucchini is edible, that olive oil is better to cook with than vegetable oil, and that the more colorful her salads are, the better they are for her health.
“It was so interesting. I just never knew so much about food and what it can do for you,” she says.
Her enthusiasm has rubbed off on her family. Her sister accompanied her to a cooking class. And it’s also made a difference to her family. Her aunt has retooled her tamale pie to make it healthier.
“When I told them I needed fruits and vegetables, it became a big something,” Jolanda says. “But we have diabetes in the family, so that’s a good thing. And for anyone who has diabetes, I would say: Change your diet immediately. It makes the difference between living and dying.”