Buford Peace Award Winner Reflects on Upbringing, Rural Health Challenges in Alabama
By David Miller
There’s never an idle day for those working in rural health.
The ever-shifting variables of Medicaid, the economy, hospital closures and project funding ensure health professionals and educators like Dr. Lea G. Yerby are conditioned for “the marathon.”
“It seems like the cards continue to get stacked against us,” said Yerby, assistant professor in UA’s department of community medicine and population health.
Yerby has dedicated her career to research and service of rural health disparities and health quality outcomes in Alabama, from rewriting policy to equitably fund HIV services, to assessing the efficacy of Medicaid. She’s currently studying access to autism spectrum disorder screening and early interventions for rural children.
But for Yerby, a recent and unexpected honor has caused her to reflect on her role as an agent for justice. On Monday, May 7, Yerby received the Lahoma Adams Buford Peace Award, given annually to a faculty member at UA who, in his or her teaching, research, professional practice and personal life, has demonstrated exceptional levels of involvement in mediating human disputes, helping overcome prejudice, promoting justice and establishing peace.
“The weight of getting this award in 2018 is even more humbling, given our current culture and climate,” Yerby said. “It just humbles me more, and I feel an even greater weight and responsibility of running the marathon for justice.”
Yerby’s local service in rural health has been concentrated with the Tuscaloosa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, West Alabama AIDS Outreach (now Five Horizons), the Alabama HIV Policy and Advocacy Committee and Family Counseling Services.
Yerby has spent more than 15 years advocating for people in the HIV/AIDS community, where she’s keen to build relationships and has opted for service roles instead of research.
“I understand I don’t know what it’s like to contract HIV and walk around with it every day,” Yerby said. “I was constantly learning and understanding. It was a very purposeful, heart-driven decision to not be the PI or lead research on HIV.”
Back to the farm
Yerby was destined for a career in international health care until she and her parents moved back to her family’s farm in Kennedy, about an hour north of Tuscaloosa.
After the age of 3, Yerby had only spent summers on the farm where five generations of family on her mother’s side had lived. Re-connecting with her community inspired Yerby to address a growing number of rural health needs, like infant mortality rates and their relative racial disparities. Yerby, who wanted to be a family physician, shifted her focus from pre-med to public health during her senior year at Belmont University.
“We moved around a lot when I was growing up,” Yerby said, “but then I realized my own family and own community – where people knew my grandmother and where I had roots – needed help as much, if not more, and that I had different opportunities there. I realized I could have more impact and influence on my own community.”
Winning the Buford Peace Award has evoked memories of her grandparents more than she expected, Yerby said.
“I keep thinking about them, because [service to one’s community] is what has always been modeled in my family,” Yerby said.
A child of the 1980s, Yerby was moved by the story of Ryan White, the Indiana teen who contracted HIV from a contaminated blood sample and later developed AIDS, thrusting the disease into the national spotlight as he and his family fought to have him re-admitted to school.
Yerby was three years younger than White, who died in 1990. She said her own illness, which caused her to miss all of sixth grade, made her very aware of “how people process illness and how people get treated in the health care system.”
Yerby began volunteering with West Alabama AIDS Outreach while working on her doctorate at UA in the late 2000s. Her doctoral studies included a health policy fellowship on Capitol Hill, where she worked with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and wrote parts of the Ryan White CARE Act in 2006.
“That year, we ended up in this intense fight with New York and San Francisco to try and redistribute federal tax dollars to be fair to where the disease was spreading,” Yerby said. “We had a lot of new cases in the Southeast, but the federal funding was not following the disease. If you had HIV in the Southeast, you had a much smaller formulary, so you might not be able to get your medications, and there were long waiting lists, so you would be on the drug assistance program.”
To date, re-writing parts of the Ryan White CARE Act was the “hugest thing” Yerby has done, as the act receives more than $2 billion annually in federal funds and affects thousands of people. But Yerby said her greatest achievements still happen in the field and in the classroom.
“As a teacher of medical students, it tends to come down to that one person that chooses family medicine,” Yerby said, “that winds up choosing a rural community because of an exposure that you had the privilege to set up.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.