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When the Whole is Greater: The Rodham Institute Champions Health Equity During Pandemic, Trauma

Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, MD, RESD ’88, professor of medicine at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), has an apt analogy for tackling complex issues, borrowed from her father. “When you’re eating a hamburger or a vegan burger, you don’t eat the lettuce and then the tomatoes and then the bread, and then squirt some ketchup and mustard in your mouth,” she says. “You eat the whole thing.”

It’s that approach — embracing whole, rather than piecemeal — that makes the Rodham Institute successful. Health equity, explains El-Bayoumi, who is also the founding director of the Rodham Institute, is about more than just removing obstacles to health care. It’s about adequate food resources, education, and exercise, where you live, and the quality of your drinking water. Over the past year, the Rodham Institute has tackled health equity in tandem with pandemic and mental health challenges.

The institute team — El-Bayoumi, Tracie Bass, Kristina Williams, and Ashanti Carter — has coordinated the delivery of hot meals to more than 3,000 people, distributed 560,000 donated masks and hand sanitizer, and ensured children at Brookland Manor, a historically Black housing development in Ward 5, received Christmas presents. They’ve connected patients to mental health services and transitioned from in-person events to a robust webinar series on health equity. They also started a special webinar series that features community partners Praise Baptist Church in Ward 8 and Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Ward 7.

“Our philosophy is that we not only stand with people during good times, but it’s especially important that we stand with them during difficult times,” El-Bayoumi says. “I’m so proud of our collective work because we were there during people’s real needs, supporting people and organizations.”

The Rodham Institute’s strategy of partnering with other organizations — it now boasts 154 partners — has allowed it to expand and enhance its promotion of health equity. During COVID-19, for example, the institute, after joining forces with Gallaudet University, learned of disparities within the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

“When we think about health equity, it has to be more than just race, ethnicity, or even class,” El-Bayoumi explains. “You have to examine backgrounds and [learn about] this notion of minorities within minorities.” 

El-Bayoumi later hosted family physician James Huang, MD; Poorna Kushalnagar, PhD, Director of the Deaf Health Communication and Quality of Life Research Lab at Gallaudet University; and Stacy Abrams, CEO of Why I Sign, for a session of the Rodham Impact Speaker Series on opportunities to decrease those health disparities.  

While the team transitioned to technology, organized, found and leveraged new partnerships, and puzzled out the logistics of distributing food and supplies, El-Bayoumi found herself temporarily sidelined. Already a cancer survivor, she was diagnosed with cancer again in the summer of 2020. She continued to see patients over Zoom but was otherwise isolated at home.

“The biggest challenge was really trying to be involved because I couldn't leave, I couldn't distribute food, but what I could do was education,” she said. “Be it media through the Black Coalition Against COVID, sharing our experiences, connecting people, bringing people on to various coalitions and initiatives, that's very important.”

Her efforts culminated in a high-capacity vaccination event at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Ward 8 on April 3, a milestone that encapsulated what the institute aims to do. El-Bayoumi and Cora Masters Barry, former first lady of Washington, D.C., along with The GW Medical Faculty Associates (MFA) Event and Operational Medicine program, led by Drew Maurano, PA-C, unit leader for the D.C. Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps and associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at SMHS, brought together organizations, schools, and volunteers to offer comprehensive care to D.C. residents.

Medical, nursing, pharmacy, and dental students as well as medical faculty from GW, Georgetown University, and Howard University gave vaccinations, provided referrals, and spoke about inexpensive, preventive health care options. Richard Katz, MD, director of the Division of Cardiology, Walter A. Bloedorn, MD, Chair in Cardiology, Bloedorn Professor of Cardiology, and professor of medicine at SMHS, and members of the GW Heart and Vascular Institute conducted blood pressure screenings and gave away blood pressure cuffs. Whitman-Walker providers talked about PrEP and sexual health. The institute’s health literacy partners provided educational services. The Black Coalition Against COVID, on whose steering committee the Rodham Institute sits, connected the institute to Uber, which offered free rides. Capital Area Food Bank and Food and Friends handed out boxes of food. Free childcare was available, and a DJ played gogo music. Most importantly, 10 community-based organizations found participants. 

“This is how I believe we can really tackle and solve and work to improve health equity,” says El-Bayoumi, who added that one participant told her she didn’t want to leave; she was having too much fun. “It’s great to get vaccinated, but there are other needs in the community as well. People have food security issues and other health problems. Using the vaccine event to get people reconnected to health care was an opportunity too good to pass up.”

Still, the institute’s work wasn’t complete. On May 6, 2021, the Rodham Institute hosted its annual summit, designed to bring together community and health care partners to discuss a critical issue. This year’s theme, though it was chosen last year just days before the country shut down, was particularly relevant: "Breaking the Silence and the Stigma of Mental Illness."

“We couldn’t have a more timely topic to discuss,” says Barbara Bass, MD, RESD ’86, vice president for health affairs, dean of SMHS, and CEO of the GW MFA. “It was very normal to be stressed, and everyone’s resilience has been challenged during this year.” 

With sessions dedicated to elements of mental health — special populations, children, spirituality, and community actions — the institute sought to provide the same inclusive approach to knowledge as it does to health care. Closing out the day was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the institute was established in honor of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, an advocate for using education to achieve social change. 

For El-Bayoumi and Clinton, mental health, especially stress, is a crucial component of overall health. This past year, El-Bayoumi says, was a double pandemic: the pandemic of COVID and the pandemic of racism. It’s also been a time of trauma and the loss of family members, jobs, and childcare, all of which exacerbate issues of food insecurity or a lack of educational and health care resources. Combined, this year has been simply, stressful. 
And the solution is to look at the sum of the parts. Both Clinton and El-Bayoumi advocate investing in health care, in economic development, in food, in education, in everything that improves the length and quality of life.

“Your dad is right,” Clinton says, referring back to El Bayoumi’s hamburger analogy. “You can’t be picking the pieces apart and say, ‘OK, let’s do it one at a time.’ You’ve got to do it holistically.”