A sad fate for some Southern women

Every one of the 13 chairs at the Hair Station is occupied this afternoon by women getting a wash and set or soaking their tired feet. Their chatter is louder than the bubble-top dryers. Miss Janie has decided to eat a slice of mixed berry pie with ice cream and call it lunch; the bridesmaids at Mary Baird’s daughter’s wedding will be wearing short yellow dresses and cowboy boots.

You wouldn’t know it from the cheerful talk, but this little Southern town has lately acquired a sad distinction: Women here are likely to die nearly a decade sooner than their counterparts less than 200 miles away.

A headline on an earlier version of this article implied that Fairfax County and Greensville County are next-door counties in Virginia. They are about 200 miles apart.

Virginia has the widest longevity gap of any state: In Fairfax County, an upscale exurb of Washington, a woman on average can expect to live to age 84. Here in Greensville County, a three-hour drive down Interstate 95, she can expect to die by 75, according to research conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Photos: Women ofEmporia


Smoking and obesity are greatly to blame, twin culprits with deep roots in rural Southern towns like this one, where about 5,000 people are served by two McDonald’s and just one YMCA. (The Curves exercise salon across from the diner closed.)

People smoke and gain too much weight all across America; childhood obesity is First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature cause. But here, the cost of a nation’s bad habits is in evidence around every corner.

You’ll find it in Mary Baird’s bustling shop on Main Street and in her family legacy. One of the regulars in today is battling cancer. Most of the others have high blood pressure or diabetes, or are related to someone who does. Mary’s brother, two sisters and her mother needed heart surgery before they hit 60.

“I’m 56 and holdin’ my breath,” she says in the back room mixing the color for Miss Janie’s hair between bites of a tossed salad. She gave up fried chicken, fried potatoes and greens cooked with ham hocks when her mother’s heart gave out. “I have never cooked food for my children with fat-backed meats and all that stuff.”

“But that’s the stuff that makes it good!” protests Miss Janie, 86, scraping the last of her berry pie lunch and declining to provide her last name because her feet hurt too much.

“Yeah,” Mary agrees. “That’s also the stuff that’ll kill ya.”

The health and prosperity boom that lifted northern Virginia bypassed parts of the rural South, leaving towns likeEmporia with the charm of Mayberry and the challenges of Appalachia.

The cocktail peanut, a staple crop, is hailed with an annual festival. Some local ladies still start their sentences with, “I declare …" So many Emporians turned out for hot dogs and lemonade at Circuit Court Clerk Bobby Wrenn’s annual Fourth of July party, they clogged up the sewer.

Yet for all of its quaint traditions, much here has changed in recent years and most of it has been stressful. Small farms and factories vanished, pushing unemployment to double digits well before the rest of the country crashed. The tobacco fields that were once the South’s economic base are mostly gone, but not the habit; the smoking rate in this region is well above the rest of the state and nation. Deaths from cancer exceed the national average; lung cancer is the deadliest.

The numbers came as some surprise to many of the women interviewed on a sticky Friday afternoon as they lunched at the diner, waited tables or sat for a comb-out. Emporia, which has far more churches than bars and a high school where everybody knows everybody else, is a friendly place to live. But none of these women — comfortable or poor, black or white, insured or not — quarreled with the message the data carried: The very conventions that have defined them as Southern are costing some their golden years.

Outside Logan’s Diner, four rocking chairs sit empty under a yellow-striped awning. It’s too hot even to rock. Inside, the lunch special is fried trout with hush puppies and the bologna burger comes with a guaranteed 5-ounce slice.

Shirley Doyle, 75, and Jean Moss, 72, are at a table by the window. They are sisters who grew up on a farm in this county. Their mother was Jean’s age when she died of diabetes; both women were diagnosed 15 years ago — it’s hereditary. They put away the fry pan and lost more than 100 pounds between them. Jean cut her cigarettes to three a day.

“The only thing we fry anymore is chicken tenders. We broil and bake,” Shirley says, pushing aside the rest of the BLT she ordered, mayo oozing out the edges. Jean left her hush puppies — deep-fried fingers of corn meal — on the plate.

That’s how it goes here. Women tend to eat wiser, smoke less and exercise at least a little — after they get sick. Every conversion bucks culinary traditions that are deep and ever-present. There is always mac and cheese at grandma’s house. You can get a fried pork chop for $1.59 at Logan’s. Indeed, pork is as celebrated as the peanut, warranting an annual festival of its own. Some Southerners still talk of eating “every part of the pig but the squeal.”

The diner closes at 2, and by 2:45 Melanie Barrett, who waited on Shirley and Jean, is almost through for the day. She eats an order of onion rings and heads out to the rocking chairs for a smoke. She is 33 years old. Her parents both died of diabetes — her mother at 54, her father at 57. She hasn’t seen a doctor in years. Can’t afford it. No health insurance.

“If you don’t work at a factory or the prison, minimum wage is all there is,” she says, referring to the state prison in Jarratt that is one of the area’s biggest employers and one of the few local jobs that provides healthcare. “It’s hard to get into those state doctors. You can call today and it could be two months before you see them.”

Access to healthcare is a major hurdle in the rural South. One hospital serves Emporia, but most state-of-the-art treatment is a good 90 minutes away. Cancer care is imported from the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. A travelingoncologist and nurse diagnose patients and help primary care physicians carry out treatment plans.

A study in the works will ask local residents why they think the cancer rate is so high; outreach workers believe self-awareness can foster change. Emporians will tell you most people know what they’re doing wrong — they’re just stubborn. It’s hard to defend eight Mountain Dews a day.

At Uptown Beauty Styling Salon a block off Main Street, owner Eletha Gillus steps out to pick up her 4-year-old daughter, Arica, before her afternoon appointments arrive. Time is short so they bring back McDonald’s.

Eletha is raising her daughter differently than the way she was raised. She seasons with smoked turkey instead of ham hocks, watches the salt, no lard. She works out at the Y.

Her aim is to break the pattern of diabetes that killed her grandmother at 72, plagues her mother at 64 and was diagnosed in her aunt, just four months ago, at age 60.

“I don’t know if it has to do with how we eat or the lack of exercise,” she says.

The bad news from the life expectancy study was that women’s vices are robbing them of valuable years. The good news is the data gathered over the last two decades showed that a community can change its stars. In Fulton, Ga., a woman’s life expectancy grew from 75 to 80; in Yuma, Ariz., it shot from 77 to 84.

Eletha considers the prospect of better days for Emporia’s next generation.

“I hope so,” she says, optimistic but unconvinced, as her daughter dances by with a carton of fries.

Sometimes, change is hard.

Photos: Women of Emporia