Debbie Wise
Debbie Wise, owner of Majestic Hair Design, is one of nine barbershop and salon owners in Rochester trained as community health educators.

By Robin L. Flanigan

Josephine Mayfield, her head covered in orange and blue twist-flex rods, is at Majestic Hair Design in Irondequoit for a wash and roller set. But owner Debbie Wise is slipping in another service—a blood pressure screening—for free while Mayfield is under the hair dryer.

Wise stares at the digital blood pressure monitor. Mayfield closes her eyes, cups her hands in her lap and breathes slowly.

The numbers stop flashing.

“173 over 116,” Wise says.

Mayfield grimaces. She’d confessed at the beginning of her appointment to skipping her blood pressure medicine this morning, but now adds new information.

“I think I might’ve missed two or three days,” she answers.

Wise stays encouraging, congratulating her on speaking up. “Before you leave, I’m going to get you some literature.”

Wise is one of nine hair salon and barber shop owners who have become community health educators, people who have been trained to take blood pressures, encourage clients to see their doctors if the readings are higher than normal, and pass out health-related material.

They are part of a group of 25 stylists and barbers in the Rochester area who offer blood pressure monitoring as part of a communitywide health campaign supported by Trillium Health and the High Blood Pressure Collaborative, an initiative of Common Ground Health and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

Salons and barbershops are ideal places to raise awareness about health disparities in African American and Latino communities, says Phyllis Jackson, one of the Get It Done program organizers and the community wellness project manager at Common Ground Health.

People congregate there, they’re comfortable there, they share their most personal stories there. These places are where long-term and trusting relationships are nurtured.

Cassandra McCrea-June, who owns Diva Defined in Rochester, puts it this way: “Everything gets shared in the chair.”

Statistics show the campaign is working. The communitywide control rate (blood pressure of 140/90 millimeters of mercury or lower) has steadily improved between 2010 and 2017 in the Finger Lakes region. African Americans and Latinos, the groups most at risk for high blood pressure, have shared in the health improvement, experiencing an impressive 31 and 43 percent decline respectively in the rate of individuals with dangerously high blood pressure of 160/100 and higher.

But there still is work to do. Half of all African American and a third of Latinos are estimated to suffer from the chronic condition, which contributes to stroke, heart attack and kidney failure. 

Wise is committed to seeing more progress. Her inspiration for getting involved came from an experience with a long-time client in 2016. One Saturday the woman came into the salon feeling lightheaded. Toward the end of her appointment she almost fell. Wise wanted to call an ambulance, but the woman insisted that she was fine. After offering water and crackers, and letting her client rest for nearly two hours, Wise still wasn’t comfortable letting the woman drive home, but she wanted to be respectful. Wise asked her to call the salon once she arrived safely, but the call never came. Turns out she’d been having a stroke, and she’d had another one hours later. When Wise visited her in a nursing home, the woman could barely talk.

“Had I taken her blood pressure, I would’ve called the ambulance,” Wise says. “Now I’d say, ‘You know what? You’re just going to have to hate me right now. We’re going to do what we have to do.’”

The screenings grew out of an effort to educate salon and barbershop owners, and by extension their clients, about HIV/AIDS. That led to offering education about substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, and in 2012, high blood pressure.

The nine trained community health educators are paid a stipend and required to spend 10 hours on education every week, with at least two of those hours dedicated to blood pressure screenings. They document their findings and follow-up with clients on their next visit.

They also attend monthly meetings to learn new information from guest speakers, take refresher courses, and plan events such as the Get It Done initiative’s annual Health and Hair Symposium, meant to increase awareness about the link between hair and overall health. More than 150 stylists, barbers and cosmetologists-in-training attended last year’s event.

Another 16 stylist and barbers are peer leaders, who keep their businesses stocked with health literature and condoms.

Four times a year, healthcare providers—nurses and residents from area colleges, retired nurses and other volunteers—come into all 25 sites to give free blood pressure screenings.

If a reading is high, clients are given additional information on contacting area healthcare providers, as well as other resources such as therapists and nutritionists, according to Jackie Dozier, Get It Done program lead and supervisor of community health initiatives at Trillium Health.

It’s common for people to make an appointment with a physician for the first time about their high blood pressure after one of these screenings.

Anthony L. Marshall Jr., owner of Glover's Barbershop in Rochester, opens his shop several times a year to the Get it Done program so that his clients can get their blood pressure checked and receive other health screenings.

Monitoring blood pressure can be particularly important for men, given that they tend to avoid regular check-ups, according to Anthony L. Marshall Jr., owner of Glover’s Barbershop in the South Wedge, a Get It Done program participant.

He speaks from experience: “I don’t go to the doctor too often. Usually only when I feel bad, which I don’t normally do.”

Marshall Jr. has high blood pressure himself—something he would not have known without the program.

McCrea-June, from Diva Defined, says a lot of her clients with consistently high blood pressure believe their numbers are acceptable for their bodies.

“They say, ‘Oh, it is what it always is. It’s normal.’ But no,” she says. “It is not normal to have high blood pressure. And if you’ve been treated with medication for more than six months, you have to be re-evaluated.”

McCrea-June isn’t letting herself off the hook. She is being treated for high blood pressure; she has started changing her eating habits, but says she needs to incorporate more exercise into her daily routine.

She can relate to the clients she is trying to help—a role she doesn’t take lightly.

“I can’t save someone’s life, but I can steer them in the right direction to help extend their life,” she says. “I feel awesome about that.”