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Vetta Sanders Thompson Receives Excellence in Public Health Award

Veta Sanders Thompson received the 2011 Excellence in Public Health award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 11th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon .

By Rebecca Rivas
St. Louis American

March 28, 2011 – Vetta Sanders Thompson, PhD, speaks like a minister, say her colleagues at Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

Thompson is an associate professor at the school and faculty scholar at the Institute for Public Health. When she tells a story, her eyes widen and her cascading braids punctuate important points as she nods in emphasis. Thompson has a 21-page resume that highlights dozens of her presentations, 70 published works and several community projects. Yet hearing her speak, it’s clear her goal is not to lengthen her resume. She is committed to ending health disparities among African Americans, particularly in cancer detection.

On April 29, Thompson received the 2011 Excellence in Public Health award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 11th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton.

Raised in Birmingham, Ala., Thompson was one of the first African Americans to integrate a previously all-white elementary school. She entered second grade with only two other black girls in the school to lean on.

She remembers stepping into the new school and immediately noting the differences from her old school. It had a library with several librarians (not the bookmobile she knew), an auditorium, a home-economics room and a physical education teacher who taught nothing else. But most of all, she noted that the books were not torn or already written in. She had been working in the whites schools’ hand-me-down books.

“We were the first African Americans at this school, and we had to figure it out – and we did,” she says. “Even today, it informs my sense of where the African-American community is and where it has to go. But I also understand how far we’ve come.”

Thompson still calls Birmingham home, even though she has lived in St. Louis for 25 years. Her experience there shaped her identity and fuels her work today, she says. “That’s why I like what I do with my public health colleagues because it takes into account that where you live plays a role in your health."

Whether it is through policy or developing the appropriate intervention communication, she aims to influence people’s access to information, foods and programs that are going to make for a healthy, high-quality life, she says.

Body, Soul and Cancers

Victoria Anwuri, project manager at the Siteman Cancer Center and Washington University School of Medicine, first met Thompson as a master’s degree student 10 years ago. Now they work together in the Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD), where Thompson leads community outreach.

“She’s very passionate about what she does, and it comes through in her personality,” Anwuri says. “She’s very committed in everything she does.”

Through the program, Thompson serves as a guest health expert on radio shows to encourage people to get screened for cancer. PECaD also works with libraries and the faith community to ensure the most recent evidence-based cancer information is getting to the public.

“I like the fact that PECaD is ongoing,” Thompson says, “and hopefully when we finish, these churches should be able to sustain that effort long after the project to end disparities is over.”

The idea is to build sustainable programs so people will always be able to get up-to-date information and know what to do to protect themselves against cancer, she says.

“Vetta has always been supportive of what we’ve been doing in terms of health ministries in the St. Louis area,” says Del Doss-Hemsley, of Faith Communities Joined for Health. “She’s been a real asset to us.”

Faith Communities Joined for Health grew out of the Brown School’s evidence-based project Body and Soul. The consortium is now developing health ministries in 15 churches with the focus of encouraging the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Working with Thompson and PECaD, the group also distributes cancer-prevention materials.

“I think things have happened because of Vetta, and I think they will continue to happen because of Vetta,” Doss-Hemsley says. “It would be a loss if she left the St. Louis area.”

Thompson says her current work with the National Children’s Study – one of the largest longitudinal studies of children’s health ever undertaken – will be one of the most noteworthy efforts of her career. She will follow children from birth to age 21 to understand how their environment combined with their biology contribute to their health.

Having a doctorate in psychology and being trained as a clinical psychologist, she is passionate about integrating mental health into health. “I think people separate them, as if you can separate mind and body, and you cannot,” she says. “If we want a healthy population, we have to pay attention to mental health as well. I see them as one and the same.”

Copyright 2011, St. Louis American