BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2022: ‘I Just Want to Thank Them so, so Much’

Director of Office of Health Equity took Circuitous Road

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

It was a small bump on the neck, she says. Warm to the touch.

She hadn’t even noticed it until a nurse brought it up during a routine examination.

Did it bother her? the nurse asked. Honestly, there was so much going on in her life at that moment, she barely noticed. No, it didn’t bother her at all.

Right then, Vivian Lasley-Bibbs was ordered to be examined — and what was found changed her life forever.

“I hadn't really paid any attention,” she said. “The nurse asked if I was tired, and she kind of went through some symptoms and I said, ‘No more than normal.’ All of us students were, you know, working and doing three things at the same time and burning the candle at both ends.”

That included attending UK’s College of Medicine, because all her life she wanted to work in the medical field. But sometimes, life steers you in a different direction, and this time it led her to the College of Health Sciences, and a new career.

A career that makes Lasley-Bibbs responsible for the wellbeing of many, many people. Not to mention, she’s doing this at a moment that could be considered the most challenging in all of our lifetimes.

No big deal. She’s been through some things. Life has prepared her well.

Let’s meet Vivian Lasley-Bibbs, director of the Office of Health Equity (OHE) in the Kentucky Department for Public Health.

CHS: First off, why did you come to UK?

VLB: Well, I'm a born and bred Kentuckian, so Kentucky is home. But there was a time when I was trying to make a decision on what to do when I had an opportunity to come back to Kentucky. I was an epidemiologist for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and my husband got an opportunity to do some important work at the Federal Medical Center here.

At the time, a good friend of mine was the former commissioner of the Department for Public Health, and I interned for him for a year and then he said, ‘You know, have you ever thought about medicine?’ I said yes, I’d always thought about it when I was getting my MPH degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I said it was always something I wanted to do. So, I applied and I got in.

But things took a turn …

That first year, when I got accepted, I was also diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I was working, I got into school, I was teaching aerobics. I was doing a lot of things.

Part of your medical school requirement is that you have a physical to make sure everything is okay. So, I was in student health services and the nurse noticed a lump. Then she made me an appointment with the ear, nose and throat specialist at UK and they immediately looked at it and a biopsy came back positive.

Things just started moving so fast. I was in surgery within 24 to 48 hours to have that removed, pathology confirmed the diagnosis, and I began my treatment plan at Markey. I mean, it was all moving like a whirlwind, but you know I was very blessed and fortunate that I had insurance and that I was connected into a system already.

I went through 11 months of treatment trying to continue as a student and it just wasn't possible, so I tried to reduce the load. But that wasn't possible, either. You want to feel like ‘I got this. Sure, I can do this. I can go to medical school. I can get chemo every week. I can do it.’

It just wasn't possible. Stressors can kick you out of remission. My mentors wondered if there was something else I wanted to do. The Physician Assistant program wasn't really something I had on my radar, but a good friend said I should consider it — CHS was right across the street, and maybe I could use some of the classes I’d already taken.

So, I talked to some folks and they were like, ‘Great, I think you'd be a perfect fit. Come on.’ And you know, the rest is history, so to speak. I had a great experience. The faculty there were very understanding of my situation, coming over in a nontraditional way. I was a little bit older than some of the students that were in my cohort but that was good too because I think we drew on each other’s life experience.

I think that was helpful for them to see that I was actually on the other side.

When somebody goes to PA school what is their normal career choice when they come out?

They usually want to go into a discipline, or a specialty area, or a practice — they want to be a generalist, or they want to do something specialized, just like a medical doctor would.

At the time I really was fascinated with orthopedics and emergency medicine. I’m a former athlete, but I also loved the fast pace of emergency medicine. But I really had to stay away from the ER because of the stressors — and I also got pregnant with my twin daughters at the same time. Life happened. So that was an added blessing because I had just graduated PA school and done two of my rotations overseas in England.

When I came back, I found out I was pregnant. I wondered how I could still take what I’d learned through PA school on the clinical side and marry it with a passion that I have for population health, which was the epidemiology focus. I decided to go back to my roots and what I really loved.

And why do you love population health? Are there many places that need this kind of help more than Kentucky?

I love being on the prevention side. I want to address communities and populations of folks and even sometimes the individual, because we’re just continually putting a band aid on things, and I want to help from a preventative angle.

And yes, Kentucky needs it, but I think our country as a whole need it, because so many times we function after the fact — we're retroactive instead of being proactive. We've been talking about social determinants of health for 10-plus years now — where people live, work, play and pray. I can't think of anybody that doesn't want good schools, good air, a quality education and adequate housing for their family. I can't think of anybody that would say no to that.

We’re trying to say this is something that should benefit everybody — that everybody should have a fair and just opportunity to optimal health.

And you've had this job during the most challenging time anyone could have imagined.

Absolutely, yes. Absolutely.

Local health departments, community partners, everyone looks to us to see how they might be able to do this equity work. And there are things that can block you, from systems that influence to politics, but we can also look to our colleagues around the country and see how they’re doing too. We have a network that’s been awful helpful in getting through these last 18-24 months.

You have the experience of being able to look at a batch of statistics and tell what that means. But then you also have this clinical experience that you've come from. And then you also have this other experience where you've been a patient during a really tough treatment. How do all these things help you in doing what you're doing?

I think I bring a lot of different perspectives to the role. I think having that lived that experience is invaluable. I think we need to listen more to the person who's had that lived experience. We sometimes have the best intentions of thinking ‘I know what you need’ versus ‘What do you need?’

When you really have to translate and disseminate information to the public, you have to say what that really means from a clinical standpoint as well, and understand some of the clinical picture.

Take diabetes, for example. You can explain what those numbers mean. But you can also explain that because of their A1C being high, and because they belong to this demographic, and because of their living situation, they need to be taught about prevention. And their family needs to be taught about prevention.  

All of those different things kind of puts me in a unique position to have conversations that maybe someone else might not be able to have.

I feel like you have an almost immense sense of responsibility — how do you manage that?

I think that's where mental health comes in because it can be overwhelming because I am so passionate about health equity.

I have lost sleep some nights over worrying about the citizens of the Commonwealth, so yeah there comes a time where you have to kind of step back and say, you know, there's only so much that our office can do.

My job is to kind of inspire others to do. We try to make sure that you as a citizen have a personal responsibility to not only yourself, but your neighbor, your community, your social network, etc.

How do you describe the College of Health Sciences when people ask about your background?

Well you know, it must have been pretty good because I have a daughter that just graduated from the MLS program!

I always tell people that there are valued opportunities outside of medicine. Sometimes we think that medicine and dentistry and law — if we’re not in one of those three careers we somehow think we failed. So, I'm trying to let students know there are other opportunities.

I had a wonderful experience. I had great professors who wanted to see me succeed. And I think that’s what made me fall in love with it the most were those relationships. It was very genuine, and they were very concerned that I did well because they knew where I was coming from, so they would always check in.

When I graduated, I felt sad that I was leaving those folks. We’d developed a bond.

I still remember how kind and compassionate they were to me.

I just want to thank them so, so much.


February is Black History Month

Since 1976 the United States and Canada have designated the month of February to recognize the contributions of people of the African diaspora. The College of Health Sciences will be recognizing and honoring some of our own Black alumni and students throughout the month – celebrating success while we also acknowledge both historical and current inequity and the work that each of us must do to dismantle systemic racism. We also hope members of our community will join with the MLK Center for events throughout the month.

Read more of our Black History Month coverage here