Two Lexington women who work to promote health and combat tuberculosis are the 2011 recipients of Public Health Heroes awards from the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health.
Dr. Malkanthie McCormick, an infectious-diseases physician, and Jill Chenault-Wilson, director of the William Wells Brown Community Center in Lexington, are to be recognized at the Urban County Council's April 28 meeting.
Both women said they were shocked to learn they'd been named health heroes.
"It was the biggest surprise of my life," McCormick said. "When they told me, I said I would accept the award on behalf of all the dedicated people who work in the TB-prevention program at the health department. Without them, I couldn't do anything."
Chenault-Wilson said the importance of the award took a few days to sink in.
"I couldn't believe it. ... I'm usually the one who's nominating other people for awards," she said. "But when I look at all the doctors and others who are past recipients, I know I'm blessed. It's truly an honor."
Chenault-Wilson received the award for her health-promotion efforts at the Brown center, which holds weight-loss challenges, health literacy workshops, walkathons, exercise classes and other programs for adults and young people. She is a community outreach worker for the Racial and Ethnic Approaches for Community Health program, and a cervical cancer survivor who uses her personal story to encourage others.
"For me, being a cancer survivor, health initiatives are so important," she said. "I just knew that I had to step above the rim and help others."
Chenault-Wilson grew up in Lexington's East End. She attended the University of Louisville on a track and field scholarship and held various government-service posts in Lexington after moving back here in the 1970s.
Then she heard that Fayette County was opening the new William Wells Brown Elementary School on East Fifth Street and that it would house a community center. Soon afterward, she applied to be center director. This is her third year in the post.
"I was working with the YMCA and really didn't want to leave," she said. "But this area really is my community. I grew up here, and my dad still had rental property just down the street. It just hit me: 'You have to go back into your community and help build it.' Now, I get to plant seeds and watch them blossom and grow."
McCormick is a native of Sri Lanka, a small island country off the coast of India, where she grew up and earned a medical degree before coming to the United States in 1972.
Since then, she has taught at universities in New York, Connecticut and Georgia; she is now a part-time medical faculty member at the University of Kentucky. She also has worked at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers in Kentucky and three other states.
McCormick, whose specialty is infectious diseases and health-care epidemiology, has spent much of her career combating tuberculosis. She is a clinical consultant with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department's TB program and does similar work for the four-county Gateway District Health Department based in Owingsville. McCormick headed the state TB Advisory Board from 2003 to 2006.
"Tuberculosis is an illness I've always been interested in," she said. "It was a common infection back in Sri Lanka, as it is in many developing countries."
TB was a major U.S. health problem until rates declined sharply in the 20th century, thanks to improved sanitation and treatment. But the disease never went away, and cases surface periodically. Modern international travel creates the potential for people who are exposed to TB overseas to carry the illness back home or anywhere in the world. That's why experts like McCormick stay on guard.
"Our TB rates in Kentucky are lower than national rates," she said. "But as long as we continue to have global travel and accept immigrants from developing counties, the potential for tuberculosis cases will remain. We must always be aware of tuberculosis and make sure that we identify those who are infected and give them the proper treatment."
The ultimate health goal, McCormick said, is to eradicate TB worldwide.