In this vintage photo, Edward Partridge, M.D., reviews a map of Alabama and the target areas for the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement.In this vintage photo from the O'Neal Cancer Center archives, Edward Partridge, M.D., reviews a map of Alabama and the target areas for the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement.

It has been 25 years since leaders at UAB recognized the need to address widening health disparities in cancer screening and treatment, and then took decisive action to address it.

The result was the creation of what is now the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. During its silver anniversary this year, the office traces its roots, development and impact on the communities it was designed to serve. This month, the office’s monthly newsletter, Community Connections, talks to a few of the pioneers.

Former Director: Edward Partridge, M.D.

Edward Partridge, M.D., paused for a moment when asked if he ever imagined that the office he founded would deliver such a sustained and widespread impact.

Edward Partridge, M.D.Edward Partridge, M.D.

“I thought we would be successful because we were targeting early a problem that was being identified,” said the former Cancer Center director. “The major driving force for us, going back 25 years ago, was that we recognized that cancer disparities were emerging. In the 70s, we discovered things like mammography and colonoscopy, and we developed some reasonably effective chemotherapy so we could impact outcomes. But beginning in the 80s, the discoveries were delivered differently.”

Partridge said it became clear that, while cancer screening and treatment methods were improving, patients with lower incomes or less education received different levels of care. This also represented a significant racial divide. After research, the Cancer Center recognized that those disparities were widely present in Alabama and neighboring Mississippi.

The program began as a small coalition between UAB and other cancer and health advocacy groups, called the Alabama Partnership for Cancer Control in the Underserved.

“We were underfunded, so one group would volunteer to buy the sandwiches for the lunch meeting,” Partridge recalled. “But it gave us an infrastructure that allowed us to convince the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute that we had enough of an association that we could write some grants to formalize our organization.”

Outreach Coordinator: Suzanne Churchill Reaves

When Partridge had secured funding to hire his first full-time employee for the new outreach office, he turned to Suzanne Churchill Reaves as his outreach coordinator.

Suzanne ReavesSuzanne Churchill Reaves

“Because of his dedication and his vision, it was easy to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to make a difference,’” Reaves said. “There were just a lot of moving pieces that came together to make it happen.”

Reaves and the new team, including Linda Goodson, helped adopt the Community Health Advisor model, beginning in Bessemer, Alabama, among residents of the Bessemer Housing Authority. Both the effort and the network expanded into Alabama’s Black Belt region as the office recruited more community gatekeepers.

“We just started county by county,” Reaves said. “We had a lot of good partners in that area.”

Reeves said she was most proud of her role with the Community Health Advisors during the early years. Decades later, she still has a recipe for taco soup given to her by an early Community Health Advisor from the Black Belt.

“It was just an incredible time,” she said. “If you go to somebody’s house and you have a glass of tea, and you learn what problems exist in their community, you really get connected.”

Program Manager: Earl Sanders

Decades of a career in medical service and patient advocacy came full circle for Earl Sanders when he joined the outreach and engagement team with the Deep South Network. As a program manager, Sanders coordinated a hotline for cancer information. In addition, he went on the road to recruit community-based health advocates.

“I would visit hospitals in West Alabama and in the Black Belt,” Sanders said. “I would strike up a relationship with them and invite them to be part of the program. Dr. Partridge and I spent many miles down the highway.”

Earl SandersEarl Sanders

Sanders, throughout his career, worked as a patient advocate. It began in the Air Force in 1967, where he treated soldiers who were wounded in Vietnam. Sanders said his experience overseas at a hospital in Japan was perfect training for the next phase.

“I felt so prepared being in the hospital setting,” he said. “It was an honor to serve those patients in Japan who had served in Vietnam.”
Among early collaborations, Sanders recalls the partnership between UAB, Tuskegee University and the Morehouse School of Medicine, in which the three institutions would work on joint projects with the National Cancer Institute.

It was all the result of a lunchtime conversation where talk turned into real action, he said.

“Dr. Partridge sketched it out on a napkin,” Sanders said. “He sketched out what we were going to do, and sure enough, we did get funded.”

Sanders noted that his former director still has the napkin that set the framework for the first-ever collaboration.

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement will present a “Fireside Chat with the Pioneers,” a virtual conversation on the roots and development of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. The event will be held at 5:30 p.m. CST on Zoom and will be open to the public.

This story originally ran in the January 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.