Health is their sisterly bond

Etta Cummings stood in the back of a small room filled with sympathetic faces. Her failing eyes were obscured by big, dark glasses. She leaned on her cane, clutched her bright caftan and prepared to take one very big step.

"My name is Etta Cummings. I'm a diabetic. My diabetes is totally out of control. I didn't take it seriously for many, many years," she said by way of introduction. "By this time, my health started deteriorating, so I'm on the run to correct it."

Heads nodded in support. Other women's stories poured forth. Of diabetes and struggles with weight. The difficulty of caregiving and the effort of exercise. The temptation of unhealthy food and the jettisoning of "toxic relationships." The fear of doctors and the burden of stress -- code, to many of those present, for depression.

One Thursday evening each month, a dozen or so African American women in their 50s or older make their way to the third-floor lounge at Olympia Medical Plaza in Mid-Wilshire to learn how to grow old well. After half a century or more of putting other people first, of bad habits and backsliding, they have decided they want to change their lives and help one another do the same.

For this sisterhood of the hopeful and health-minded, Cummings was both fellow striver and cautionary tale. The wiry 69-year-old had discovered a diabetic ulcer in her foot. She went to the doctor, she told the group during this, her first meeting, because she couldn't see the wound, couldn't bandage it, "but I could smell it."

The fact that these women, a.k.a. Sisters Staying Healthy, meet each month to talk about dementia and brain fitness, menopause and sexual health, stress reduction and vegetarian cooking is unusual enough in an era in which Americans spend billions of dollars to avoid aging altogether.

But what they are trying to do is even harder because of who they are. African American women are among the least healthy women in America. Even in health-conscious Los Angeles, they have the highest death rates from all causes, but especially from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

"There is inequality in life expectancy," said Eleanor Brownn, the group's founder, champion, cheerleader and increasingly slender poster child. "It's not just the length of your life, but also, when you start looking at African Americans, we're sicker than everybody."

But not if Brownn can do something about it.

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It was 2002 when Brownn put it all together. She was attending a women's health conference at UC San Francisco when a chart flashed on the big screen. "Life expectancy," it read, and the bar for African Americans was much shorter than for every other ethnicity. Frighteningly shorter.

Brownn started thinking of all the people she knew who had died prematurely. Her co-worker, who died of lung cancer in her 50s. Her foster brother, who was 8 when he succumbed after a straightforward operation to correct a "lazy eye." Her beloved father, who died at 60 of bladder cancer. She heard her mother's voice questioning the care those loved ones had received from a white medical establishment.

Growing up in South Los Angeles, Brownn remembered finding a lump in her breast when she was 14, two months after her father's death, and waiting a year before telling anyone "because I was afraid to go to the doctor." She finally confided in her worried mother, but it took them another year to muster the trust to pursue medical treatment. The lump was benign.

And she thought about her first real job, as an outreach worker in the Hypertension Control Project in Watts. Brownn spent her days contacting African Americans who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure to make sure they were taking their medication and seeing the doctor for follow-up care.

Most weren't.

"They didn't trust the doctor," she said. "They knew they were sick. They didn't want to take the pills. They thought they were being experimented on. That's what resonates with me. I heard this over and over and over again."

Brownn has focused her career as a community advocate on healthcare issues. But that "aha!" moment at UCSF made her realize that she needed to do more -- because that bar chart "meant lives lost."

As she likes to point out, "The numbers speak for themselves."

Life expectancy for black women is 75 years, according to "Death in the Golden State," a 2007 report by the Public Policy Institute of California. For white women, it's 80 years, Latinas, 83 and Asians, 85.

So a few months after returning home from San Francisco, Brownn launched Life-Long: Sisters Staying Healthy with a small conference on black women's health. It has since become an annual event. Last November's conference, funded by public and private grants, brought together healthcare professionals, educators and 120 women.

A year and a half ago, she started the monthly meetings at Olympia Medical Plaza -- part support group, part lecture series, part guided tour of healthful living in the second 50 years of life. No subject is off-limits. Few bodily functions go unmentioned.

Brownn knows that helping African American women be as healthy as everyone else is a daunting task, that Sisters Staying Healthy is one very small step. But she also knows that "in our little circle, you can touch one person's life and that can make a difference." Brownn spreads the word via e-mail, website and chutzpah. She recruited one member on a flight between Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Her target audience: midlife, middle-class African American women stretched to the limit with jobs and responsibilities. Brownn counts herself among them. She is 58, has a master's degree in gerontology and a condo in Culver City. She spent a decade caring for her ailing mother, who died at 79. She is single and has no children.

Brownn will not divulge her weight through the years. But she is just under 5 feet 2, and she once wore size 22. Six clothing sizes hang in her closet today. She eats like a diabetic, because she does not want to become one -- nothing white, everything steamed. Chocolate hasn't passed her lips since 1996.

"This is sort of now or never," she admitted to the group at its May meeting. "Being connected to this group, I don't know if it's helping anybody else, but it's helping me. There's something about being accountable to other people and knowing that other people are going to be asking about you and want to see you do well."

And how well is Brownn doing?

"I'm wearing white pants in a size I haven't worn." She stops. A pause. A smile. "I don't think I wore this size at birth." The women laugh and clap. Brownn continues: "There are a lot of things going on in my life right now that aren't working. But you know, I feel healthy."

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"I'm Michelle Kemp, and I took that bold step to remove myself from a toxic work environment." "I'm Liz Smith, and I made a commitment to myself recently that I'm going to take better care of myself." "I'm Brigette Kidd, and this is my second meeting. This is great that I came today, because I was actually feeling a little low."

That's how every session of Sisters Staying Healthy begins. It's the real heart of Brownn's effort: Who are you and what have you done to take care of yourself lately? Beyond the simple act of connection, beyond encouragement and support, telling their stories allows these women to share information in a way many never have before.

"We come from families that work hard, and we don't talk about going to the doctor as a wellness program," Toni Laudermilk said. "We only go to the doctor when we're flat on our back. And when we come home, we don't talk about it. At least that's the kind of history most African Americans experience. Our parents didn't say, oh, you know, your grandmother had a double mastectomy."

Laudermilk runs the Center for LifeLong Learners, a nonprofit after-school program in the West Adams neighborhood. Earlier this year she was diagnosed with acinic cell adenocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands, and she has made her way regularly to Sisters Staying Healthy.

Talking with Brownn and the other women made the stylish 62-year-old realize how important a family health history is and how little she knew about her relatives -- and, by extension, her own body. She called her real sisters and compared notes.

Laudermilk knew that her mother's mother had had a double mastectomy, because she once walked in on the older woman dressing; no one ever said the reason was cancer. Laudermilk didn't find out until her 40s that her Uncle Buddy's missing leg had been amputated because of diabetes.

And then there's the other side of the family. Her father killed himself. His brother killed his wife and committed suicide. The couple's babies spent two days in the apartment alone with the bodies. The older one killed himself in his 20s. The younger one grew up to be a recluse.

"Something was really, really off," Laudermilk said. "Once again, there was never any conversation around it, so you know it's something I'll never have an answer to. It is something I wonder."

Laudermilk's loved ones will have far fewer mysteries to unravel. Brownn gave her a health diary and extra copies to hand out to her book group.

She is documenting her own condition. She's cataloging her husband's various medications and the ailments they address. She'll soon be sitting down with her daughter, Ch-a Mosley, and telling all. Families, she said, "need to learn how to talk about their health issues."

And she's practicing just that, one Thursday evening each month.

"My name is Toni Laudermilk," she began recently before segueing into menopause and weight gain, caring for an ailing mother and nurturing a marriage, keeping a nonprofit afloat in a recession.

"It was all a bit much," she continued. "So I decided that I am slowly getting myself back together so I can play tennis again, play with the little senior ladies like I used to. I want to ski some more.

"I am not dead yet."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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