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ChangeMakers: Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, building 'a culture of health' for the underserved

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Dr. LaPrincess Brewer is photographed at the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. LaPrincess Brewer is photographed at the Mayo Clinic on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019 in Rochester, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, 38, is a preventive cardiologist in the department of cardiovascular medicine at Mayo Clinic, and an assistant professor at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Her research focuses on creating strategies to reduce heart disease health disparities in minority populations and underserved communities. 

Brewer also heads up the Fostering African-American Improvement in Total Health (FAITH) program, which she started as a student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. She brought the program to the Mayo Clinic as a cardiology fellow seven years ago. 

The FAITH program collaborates with the African-American faith community in Rochester and the Twin Cities to prevent heart disease in the underserved community. Black Minnesotans have higher rates of premature death due to heart disease and stroke compared to the white population. Brewer uses a community-based participatory research approach where community members are involved in all phases of the research and guide the program, which has included health education sessions promoting cardiovascular health, fitness and cooking classes and mobile technology. 

"As a young girl, I saw so many people dying so early in my church from early heart disease risk factors and so much life was lost, so much potential," Brewer said. "I wanted to somehow give back and say, 'We have to work on changing the culture and build a culture of health.'"

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the context of Black History Month, what does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

To me, being a black Minnesotan comes with a lot of responsibility, if you will. I say that because we're such a small minority. I would say [it's] being a pioneer and trailblazer in whatever you're interested in. For me it's my interest in achieving cardiovascular health equity for all. I want to do that through all of the training and experiences that God has blessed me with [and] to use those skills to truly make an impact on the community. I really would like to focus on those who are marginalized and are yearning for social justice. I feel that what I'm doing is a form of social justice and improving health outcomes.

What figures have shaped you into the person you are today?

I would definitely say my mother.

She really defied the odds and made so many sacrifices for me to get to the point that I am now. We joked recently when she came to Minnesota during the polar vortex that she recalls me as a young girl in Charlotte, North Carolina, going with her to the grocery store and reading books as she walked through the aisles. 

People would look and say "Is your daughter reading books?" 

And she would say, "Yes, she's going to be somebody." 

That just truly strikes a chord with me and really has motivated me to keep going. There have been times where others may have doubted my abilities or said, "You have so many things going against you. You sure you want to be a cardiologist? You sure you want to go to medical school? You sure you want to do this type of work that's so time demanding?" 

But my mom has always been that cheerleader to say, "No, keep going. You can do this. They need you. You have a lot to bring to the table." She truly has influenced everything I do. And I'm truly grateful to have her my life. 

What's your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?

My vision for the future of black Minnesotans in Minnesota is that we can all be our best selves. When I say our best selves I mean healthy both spiritually and physically. I want to make sure that everyone has a fair opportunity to have the best health that they can have and be the best person they can be from a health standpoint. I think when people are not allowed this opportunity it's a detriment to us as a society. If one person isn't healthy then we're not healthy, but when everyone is healthy we can be as productive as possible. 

And it's a shame that some people just don't have that opportunity due to so many different odds against them. Some of these include financial and housing instability, neighborhood and built environment, health care and health care access, [and] education level. Some of these things are really, really tough to tackle and it's really hard to single-handedly do that. We as health care providers definitely get intimidated by it. 

I feel that we can all play our part in doing something to tackle these so that all Minnesotans can be healthy [and] not just one sector of the population.