Healthcare champions

We salute these visionaries who are making Atlanta a healthier place to live

Photographs by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Urban Perform
Laura Pritchard and English Avenue residents team up to get fit

From the road, the old gas station didn’t stand out much from its neighbors—a boarded-up brick two-story building and a green-awninged bodega—on this stretch of Joseph E. Boone Boulevard just west of the Georgia Dome.

But now, a bright new mural with a crouching pink tiger hints that something powerful is going on inside. The space is home to Urban Perform, a nonprofit that since January of 2012 has brought exercise classes and equipment to the English Avenue, Vine City, and Washington Park neighborhoods, an area with few city parks and only one other fitness facility within walking distance.

Just as Atlanta is home to many food deserts—poor areas more than a mile from the nearest supermarket—the city also lacks fitness facilities in some of its most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. “There are ‘gym deserts’ too,” says Laura Pritchard, the twenty-seven-year-old fitness trainer who founded Urban Perform. “When you’re looking at combating obesity in kids and adults, food and fitness go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other and expect to succeed.”

Pritchard first got involved with the neighborhood when volunteering with the faith-based Mission Year program. The pastor at New Life Covenant Church on English Avenue invited her to start a permanent program in the church’s warehouse. When she consulted nearby neighbors, she found that, first and foremost, they wanted a safe place for their kids to play and be healthy. So Urban Perform began by focusing on youth fitness with an after-school program. Last August the gym partnered with Odyssey Villas Apartments, permanent housing for formerly homeless families, to provide an after-school exercise and nutrition program for the kids in the housing complex.

Now, in that old gas station, Urban Perform has treadmills, elliptical machines, free weights, bands, balls, and other fitness equipment. There’s also a full schedule of exercise classes for adults, including indoor cycling, Zumba, yoga, circuit-training, kickboxing, and Pilates. The instructors teach their classes for no pay.

At this gym, there’s no binding contract and no need to prove residency. The first visit to Urban Perform is free, and then it’s $2 to drop in or as little as $15 for a month. Pritchard’s goal is to get 400 people through the door this year. In the first month, she got more than eighty.

There’s no plan to turn this operation into a for-profit venture; the gym is primarily funded by a three-year, $90,000 grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation and individual gifts. The goal is to raise enough money to move from the cramped gas station to a bigger nearby location that can accommodate not just the gym but also a childcare space.

“We’re seeing people get excited, and viewing this as something the neighborhood values and enjoys,” Pritchard says. “They’re making exercise a part of their routine, and that’s success.” —Christine Van Dusen

Shuming Nie
This Atlanta professor uses tiny glow-in-the-dark particles to root out cancer

The only sure way to beat cancer is to remove it completely, with surgery. But the tumor margin—where cancerous cells merge into healthy tissue—is notoriously difficult to clear. Thanks to some Atlanta researchers, those gray areas are now a little less murky.

Shuming Nie, a biomedical engineering professor at Emory University and Georgia Tech and director of the Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology, is heading up a clinical trial for breast and pancreatic cancer, testing a new method of ensuring that every last tumor cell gets detected. Nie’s team injects patients with luminescent nanoparticles, which spread to the site of the tumor and bind with cancerous cells. When surgeons shine a specialized light on the area, tumor cells glow like stars in the night sky while healthy tissue remains dark. During one surgery for pancreatic cancer last year, this process revealed otherwise undetected malignant cells, which the doctors were then able to remove. “We believe we’ve already saved a few lives,” Nie says.

Nie’s background is in chemistry, but he found the dry academic output of that field unsatisfying. “I wanted to tackle big problems,” he says. Cancer was that big problem. Nie has focused on nanoscale engineering since coming to Atlanta from Indiana University in 2002. Here he joined an extensive community of nanomedicine researchers, including Georgia Tech professor Gang Bao, who leads two national centers. Nie’s team works at the state-of-the-art “clean room” lab at Marcus Nanotechnology Building on Tech’s campus.

Over the past decade, Nie has published almost 100 papers, filed twenty patents, and received too many awards to list. But for all his accomplishments, he is understated, working out of a small, neat office in the new Health Sciences Research Building on the east side of Emory’s campus.

“He’s definitely a relaxed person. He puts a lot of trust in the people who work with him and allows them the freedom to explore novel concepts or designs,” says Nie’s colleague Brad Kairdolf, an assistant professor and researcher. The team is also developing cancer-fighting drugs that could be sent straight to a tumor, though that technology is likely a decade away. Similar research could be used to fight cardiovascular disease, using nanoparticles to target plaque inside arteries.

In 2011 Atlanta-based Spectropath spun out of Nie’s research to commercialize the detection tool; it’s planned for an early 2015 launch in Europe, where the regulatory process takes less time. Spectropath CEO Ralph Gaskins, whose father died of colon cancer after an initial surgery failed to completely remove the tumor, became interested in the work after hearing a presentation by Nie in 2009. “My first thought was that this technology would have saved [my father’s] life,” says Gaskins. —Van Jensen

Kate Atwood
A young woman turns her own grief into a way to help children cope with their losses

In middle school, Kate Atwood was sitting in Ms. Kerewich’s social studies class when the intercom summoned her to the office. She looked at her friend Kyle and stalled, dreading the inevitable. The night before, when Atwood had run up to report on her Little League game, the bed where her mom had lain, hooked up to a breathing machine, had been empty. Now Atwood sensed, correctly, that her mother had finally lost her six-year battle with breast cancer.

A social and upbeat kid, Atwood, along with her brother and dad, would soldier on. Nobody explained the stages of grief. She didn’t talk about her loss. “I did every activity. It kept me going,” Atwood says. “We had this theme in my household: We would charge on.” Atwood found comfort in sports. “I could cry over a loss in a game, and that was more socially accepted than crying over my mom. Sports was a way I could process my emotions.”

While studying at the University of Virginia, she volunteered as a counselor at a camp near Richmond for kids who had lost a parent. The first night, the director asked her to talk about her own childhood. “I hadn’t shared my story with anybody,” says Atwood. “Never had I been asked. Never had I thought to share it with even my closest friends. Here I was in front of 200 strangers, mostly little kids, sharing the story of what had happened with my mom and how I felt.”

The moment was liberating—and inspiring, as young campers began to seek her out. Even after Atwood moved to Atlanta for a marketing job, she returned every summer to volunteer at the camp. Then one night over dinner, she said to her father, “These kids need more.”

Atwood quit her job and started raising funds to form a nonprofit. Her first event was taking six kids bowling in June 2003. She and other volunteers began organizing monthly outings to places like Fernbank and Braves games.

“From day one, it was such a diverse group of kids, which made it much more powerful,” says Atwood. “The premature death of a parent doesn’t know any social boundaries. We were putting kids together who wouldn’t typically get together but who shared similar experiences. The first question they’d ask each other was, ‘Who’d you lose?’ In no other setting would they ever feel empowered to ask that.”

Today Kate’s Club has served 725 kids between ages five and eighteen. There are still outings around metro Atlanta, but there’s also Camp Good Mourning, a three-day overnight summer program held annually at Camp Twin Lakes, as well as therapeutic group activities led by licensed professionals, and outreach programs for schools.

All programs are free, funded by donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Earlier this year, Kate’s Club was awarded a two-year, $90,000 grant from the Common Good Funds of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

Atwood, who is now executive director of the Arby’s Foundation, still serves on the board of advisors for Kate’s Club. “We always describe kids as resilient,” she says. “Sometimes I say that’s not the best word. It’s not that they’re bouncing back. They’re just trying to find kid-like ways to process a traumatic experience.

“For so many years I turned inward. But the moment I turned my biggest loss into my biggest joy was the day I started Kate’s Club. You can live the best life for you by helping somebody else. That’s the ultimate story of Kate’s Club for me. Our kids are helping each other, and that’s part of why this recipe works. They come to Kate’s Club to help themselves, and they end up helping each other too.”—Mary Jo Dilonardo

Nanette K. Wenger
Emory’s pioneering cardiologist still stands up for women

When Emory’s legendary cardiologist Nanette K. Wenger, MD, now eighty-three, began practicing medicine, heart disease was viewed as a man’s issue. She remembers an American Heart Association conference for women in the 1960s that was called “How Can I Help My Husband Cope with Heart Disease?” And the AHA’s first brochure on a heart-healthy diet was titled “The Way to a Man’s Heart.”

“I was taking care of women and found that the reference material related to middle-aged men,” says Wenger, professor of medicine at Emory University and director of the Cardiac Clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital. Yet cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women and causes one in three female deaths—more than all cancers combined. “I’ve since learned the major differences in how to manage the disease in men and women,” she adds. “It really requires a difference in testing and treatment. Is this biologic or a bias in research? Usually it’s both.”

In her fifty-plus-year career, Wenger has published some 1,500 papers and book chapters and become a national champion for women’s heart health. She has received the Gold Heart Award, the highest award of the American Heart Association, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from both the American College of Cardiology and the National Lipid Association. She was also named Georgia Woman of the Year in 2010 and selected as one of Emory University’s 175 History Makers, and she received the ACC’s inaugural Distinguished Mentor Award in 2013.

“She is the epitome of a leader, who has grace and dignity and sets an agenda that is important,” says C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “She’s very much a role model for all of us who are women in the male-dominated field of cardiology.”

Currently Bairey Merz and Wenger are among those working on an advocacy campaign that includes requiring drugs and devices reviewed by the Federal Drug Administration to consider gender. In recent years, studies have found that recommended doses of certain drugs should be lower for women and that some heart failure devices were too big for women’s bodies.

“We’re working hard on the national level to insist that women are adequately represented in research, that there is funding for the inclusion of women in research, and that cells and test tubes are coded by gender,” Bairey Merz says. “We continue to this day to have male-centered enterprise research. We’re still trying to make the world a better place for women with heart disease.”

Born in New York City in 1930 to well-educated parents who had emigrated from Russia, Wenger listened to their resounding advice: You can do whatever you want to do. Though she never met her aunt, a surgeon in Moscow, Wenger saw her relative as a role model. She graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College and, in 1954, was in the sixth class of women to graduate from the Harvard School of Medicine. Wenger then pursued a cardiology fellowship at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she met lifelong mentor Charles Friedberg, then considered the nation’s premier clinical cardiologist. Following her fellowship, Wenger and her husband Julius, a gastroenterologist, were among the first faculty hired at Emory University Medical School in the late fifties.

Wenger has seen changes over the past two decades. Medical journals now ask for gender-specific data, and several conferences are starting to require gender details for research. As Wenger and others tackle the next questions in women’s heart health, they’re looking beyond the medical arena and focusing on the environment, legislation, access to care, and availability of insurance.

“Sometimes you can do as much to advance a field by asking questions as by providing answers,” says Wenger. “Once you start asking questions, other people begin to look for the answers as well.” —Carolyn Crist

Photographs by Kaylinn Gilstrap

This article originally appeared in our 2014 Health issue.