Category: Health Magazine, Winter 2023

Title:‘Absolutely no one should die of asthma’

Author: By Bhriana Smith
Date Published: December 1, 2022
a man with glasses smiles at the camera
Photo: Courtesy of LeRoy Graham

Many people with treatable health conditions end up in the emergency room because they lack access to primary care and cutting-edge medications, says pediatric pulmonologist LeRoy Graham, M.D. (M’79, Parent’04). He often describes this situation to explain the drag health disparities can create on the entire health system.

In addition to serving in leadership positions for medical boards, Graham has dedicated his career to providing good health care and health awareness to young children and their families.

After completing his fellowship in pediatric pulmonary and critical care, Graham began serving in the military—a career that included being a brigade surgeon with the First Infantry Division during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. After retiring from the military, Graham went into private practice as a pulmonary specialist in Atlanta, Georgia. He recalls spending a lot of time with children with asthma, which piqued his interest in environmental impacts.

“Many of my minority patients lived in substandard housing in urban environments, clustered around central traffic quarters, where auto pollution was a big factor,” he says. He sought to increase his patients’ awareness of environmental health and help them advocate for change.

Graham founded a nonprofit, Not One More Life, where he utilizes community strength by partnering volunteer medical providers with faith-based organizations to educate and empower particularly poor minorities. Many of the churches have health ministers, who often bring a professional background in health work to the role, offering a powerful bridge for communication, information, and care.

“We try to inculcate in patients a sense of awareness and control, so that they can become knowledgeable and feel empowered to make changes beyond just the medicines,” notes Graham.

The nonprofit has been particularly successful in Black communities. Most notably, Graham found working with faith communities and other pro- active community organizations drew a high rate of people coming out to be tested. They wanted to learn how to self-manage respiratory diseases.

“I began to appreciate shining a light on the environmental impact of social injustice,” says Graham.

He and a team of scholars conducted a study on asthma hospitalizations in Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, before, during, and after the 1996 Olympics. He noted that during that event, city leaders were successful in getting most people in the area to stop driving and to use public transportation. As a result, the city saw some of the lowest levels of transportation-related pollutants in its history. He noted there was a dramatic decrease in both emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma, particularly among children.

“The study made me realize that particularly minorities and poor urban dwellers tend to be clustered around central transit corridors,” notes Graham. “They are disproportionately impacted by auto pollutants.”

Graham has testified before a congressional subcommittee on transportation, elucidating the health impacts of the environments where poor people and minorities live.

“We’re affected by different types of pollution and violence—as well as stress related to these things,” he notes. “Just the stress of living in a violent neighborhood, of having to rely on public resources for transportation, and the unpredictability of these factors feed into an accentuation, if you will, of the fight-or-flight mechanism in our body.”

Graham has since retired from his practice, and lives in Florida with his wife.

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