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Takin’ it to the streets

Todman seeks connections between health, environment


HP Staff Writer


an urban planner and researcher, Lynn Todman has spent her career digging into why people get sick, and the type of environment they need to get well.

As Lakeland Health’s executive director of population health, she continues to probe into the underlying factors that impact health, particularly for those who are often neglected.

Where you live “profoundly affects people’s health, and their mental health,” Todman has found – from noise and pollution to access to fresh foods.

It took her awhile to experience the epiphanies that led to her groundbreaking studies.

She grew up on the south side of Chicago in a relatively affluent home, with a father who was a doctor. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and master’s and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became a visiting scholar and research associate.

By the time she reached her mid-30s, she had traveled the world and was living in Europe. She was writing a paper for an international journal on the centralization of government in Belgium and the United Kingdom when she suddenly thought “So what? Who cares?”

She entered into months of soul-searching “to decide what really matters to me – what’s in my gut?”

She decided that seeking fairness and equal treatment for all people was what she really cared about.

She had another revelation when she returned to her old Chicago neighborhood in the 1990s and found it impoverished and plagued by crime. She observed a woman urinating on the sidewalk in broad daylight and her first reaction was “What is wrong with her?”

She later came to realize that environment and other social factors have a deep impact on a person’s mental health, adiscovery that shaped her future studies.

Todman’s subsequent work attracted the attention of Lakeland Health, for whom she had done some consulting projects, and she was hired in July 2015. She and her husband, Michael, had come to Southwest Michigan in 1995 when he took a job with Whirlpool Corp.

She said she finds the area more open to new ideas than when she first moved here.

The Community Needs Health Assessment she headed went straight to the people who needed it the most, those experiencing the most problems and a higher rate of premature death. As they spoke, Todman and the other researchers understood that some key elements were missing from the health equation.

One was trust between patients and health care providers, Todman said. Another was the capacity to provide care in such locations as Benton Harbor and Benton Heights, as well as the communities of Watervliet, Three Oaks and parts of Niles.

Not content to stick the findings up on a shelf, Todman and her colleagues decided to build trust by visitingsuch locations as the Elite Barber Shop in Benton Harbor, catering mostly to black men and some Latinos, to hear the health concerns of proprietors and customers.

“We decided to shelve the whole PowerPoint thing and just talk to people – talk to people who aren’t like us, who communicate differently,” Todman said.

Topics included everything from sleep apnea to diabetes to the pros and cons of marijuana and tobacco use.

Capacity was increased by teaching the barbers CPR and mental health first aid. During one visit a customer had a stroke and the health professionals provided assistance. A few weeks later, the same man had another episode, and the barbers now knew what to do.

Todman has been involved in establishing Mental Health Youth Theatre for high school and middle school students,to discuss attitudesabout mental illness. Health education and mental health first aid training are being offered in grades kindergarten through 12.

At Harbor Towers in Benton Harbor, some residents are being provided with prescriptionsfor fresh fruits andvegetables that can be purchased at the Benton Harbor Farmers Market.

She has done a study on the connection of living in a “food desert,” where fresh foods are not available in stores, and urban violence. Maps of Chicago’s neighborhoods with the highest homicide rates and those designatedfood deserts “werealmost a one-for-one match,” Todman said.

This finding led to a project at Sorter School in Benton Harbor, where students were provided with healthy breakfasts and lunches for six weeks, delivered by Meals on Wheels and served by volunteers. The kids showed a willingness to try new, quality foods, such as green smoothies, and teachers saw positive changes in behavior within three weeks, Todman said.

At Lakeland, Todman helped organize Healing Harmonies, a choir made up of staff members who have performed at hospice centers and awardsceremonies.

All of her work has had a positive impact on her own health, Todman said.

“I’m more in tune with self-care – not just eating right and exercising,but with quiet time and unplugging, not being a slave to my devices,” she said.

Todman avidly works out (her son, Sean, owns Renaissance Athletic Club, and of course provides mom with a free membership). She said her trainer wants her to enter into a body-building competition, but that is not her goal.

“I’m going along for the journey and not the outcome,” Todman said.

What changes would Todman like to see in the community over the next five to 10 years?

“I would love to see a community that is more diverse,” Todman said. “Ethnically diverse, religiously diverse, a place that is more able to absorb and embrace people who think differently.”

Todman’s daughter, Natalie, is African-American and her son-in-law is Jewish, and they have beautiful twin daughters, she shared.

“I want my granddaughters,who arelittle black girls who are Jewish, to feel comfortable in a place like this,” Todman said. “That would be my biggest hope.”

Contact:, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak

Lynn Todman, executive director for population health at Lakeland Health, holds public blood pressure screenings every other week at Elite Barbershop in Benton Harbor. The barbers were taught CPR and mental health first aid. During one visit, a customer had a stroke and the health professionals provided assistance. A few weeks later, the same man had another episode, and the barbers now knew what to do.

Don Campbell / HP staff

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