Last summer, I watched as the beautiful hills and valleys in California were ravaged by one of the largest wildfires in the history of the state. It was terrifying and horrific to see what was happening to the helpless communities and people in that area. In the initial aftermath, the Red Cross and other teams stepped in to help with disaster relief and aid, but I couldn’t help wondering what the aftermath of the aftermath would be. What was to become of the people of Lake County, the 9th-poorest county in the US? What would happen to their health and wellbeing when the last ambulance and the last aid truck rumbled out of town?

I kept an eye on this situation, and what I found was a community not unlike many of the rural communities in America or, for that matter, not unlike many of the urban communities over in my part of the country (the east coast). At the forefront were problems with food and healthcare access, but these issues were further complicated by a lack of public transportation—in that part of the country, everything is so spread out. People often have to travel long distances to get healthcare, food and community engagement. Other problems common to many small communities are poverty and unemployment, as well as the reality of the opioid epidemic that has ravaged so many small towns across the country. In the backdrop is a medical community wrestling with managing an epidemic of chronic illness and the medical needs of people who desperately need attention, care and help.

Statistically, things look grim for Lake County. Out of 58 counties in northern California, it ranks 50th for rates of heart disease, 52nd for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), 57th for all cancers and 58th for all-cause death and mortality. There is a high poverty rate, low education levels, low life expectancy, inadequate healthcare access and insufficient housing.

I wasn’t the only one to notice this. Wellville, a nonprofit organization, selected Lake County as one of five targeted locations that needed assistance with their socioeconomic situation. Welville’s goal is “to support the efforts of five US communities…as they improve their health and wellbeing, inspire other communities to do the same, and promote change in how our nation invests in its people, institutions, and systems to achieve equitable wellbeing for all Americans for generations to come.” Over a 10-year period, Wellville will support these five communities as they compete to achieve their health goals. As one reporter put it, “…maybe Wellville won’t change the whole world. But for those living in Wellville, maybe their whole world will change.” ] [

This is just the kind of grassroots initiative that small, beset communities in the US could really benefit from. Whether you are from one of these communities or you find it hard to imagine being unsure if you could meet your own daily needs, it’s hard to deny that communities have the potential to raise awareness about what health and wellness mean on a larger scale. Trying to “be healthy” on your own is a lot tougher than trying to be healthy in fellowship with the people around you. I think Wellville is on to something.

Welville is working with Hope Rising in Lake County, which is a collaborative of the local healthcare system, the hospital, physicians, county leaders and organizations whose goal is to improve the health and wellbeing of the community. I had the honor of joining this team this year, along with speakers who are leaders from the local hospital, as their keynote speaker at their Innovations Summit, “Collaborative Solutions for Aligned Support of the Vulnerable.” This conference was filled with people engaged in the true wellbeing of their community, from local leadership to physicians from the local hospitals, and the focus was addressing the needs of the whole person, physical and psychosocial issues. I talked about the heart, and how our emotions, including optimism, pessimism, depression and resiliency, help to drive heart health as well as overall wellbeing. It was extraordinary to see so many people coming together to help these communities make changes.

Our world is not so big anymore, with television, the internet and the constant barrage of news showing us the details of other people’s lives in ways we’ve never experienced before. What do we do with this knowledge? Do we use it to entertain ourselves, or do we use it to inspire ourselves and others to help? Fifty years ago, the news from Lake County would mostly be local. Today, it is international. As a physician as well as a human being, I believe that to know about suffering morally obligates us to do something. As difficult as the news feed can be, we can use it as a reason to become a part of making positive changes. I hope that Wellville and Hope Rising are just the start of many such organizations to arise in the future.

Women’s hearts have always been my passion, and as women lead the way for their families and their communities, I left Lake County hoping my words left some impact. But I’m just one person. Imagine what could happen to the health of our nation if we all stood up and decided to help in whatever way we can…to be sure nobody falls through the cracks and no community loses hope? That’s a future I would like to see. Will you join me?

Find a cause you’re passionate about and volunteer your time and your heart towards helping others. Reach out to your local organizations to see how you might be able to help—for example, the American Heart Association has branches all across the country…local soup kitchens or home food delivery (like God’s Love We Deliver in NYC)…reading at local community centers or nursing homes. Yes, you can make a difference.

Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life

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