Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem

Health Reporter

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover.

A longtime NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in South St. Louis, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.

peter.a photography | Flickr

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said it will distribute 338 licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana. The number is far less than the 510 hopefuls who have already paid application fees with hopes of receiving a license.

These licenses are for different aspects of the medical marijuana pipeline: 60 to cultivate marijuana, 192 to dispense and 86 to manufacture marijuana-infused products.

Even though the number of licenses to be issued is the minimum of what the law allows, a report from University of Missouri economists indicates that might be too much based on demand in other states with similar laws.

A person prepares a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which protects against 93-97 percent of measles cases. Health officials say a case has been reported in Jefferson County.
Matthew Lotz / U.S. Air Force

The St. Louis Department of Health is urging people to receive a measles shot before the busy summer travel season begins.

The U.S. largely eradicated measles decades ago thanks to effective immunizations, but the disease has had a resurgence of recent years as more people choose to not vaccinate their children.

Many of the outbreaks nationwide this year have occurred after people have traveled to countries where the disease is more common and spread it to under-vaccinated communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A lot sits vacant in the once-thriving Martindale-Brightwood neighborhhood on Indianapolis' east side. Residents say city leaders have neglected such neighborhoods in favor of downtown development.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

The Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis was once a thriving working-class community supported by manufacturing and a nearby railroad. But in recent decades, the predominantly black neighborhood has suffered from decay. Many of its buildings have plywood over their windows, and vacant lots are filled with trash or scrap metal. Nearly 40 percent of people live in poverty.

Just south of the train tracks lies the city's revitalized downtown, with its soaring office towers and the looming Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts. After the city and surrounding Marion County merged governments in 1970, Republican mayors focused their attention on downtown renewal. But critics of the consolidated government, Unigov, say it benefitted the few at the expense of the many. For them, the contrasting images in Indianapolis hold lessons for St. Louis, which is weighing a similar merger.

<p><strong>Better Together-Style Merger In Indianapolis Created Winners And Losers</strong></p> <p>Backers of the ambitious plan to merge governments in St. Louis and St. Louis County have pointed to the success of Indianapolis which completed its own mer
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Backers of the ambitious plan to merge governments in St. Louis and St. Louis County have pointed to the success of Indianapolis, which completed its own merger 50 years ago. Since then, Indianapolis has been a Midwest success story, with a gleaming downtown, a business boom and steady regional population growth.

But the success of Indiana's capital was made possible by political maneuvers that allowed Republicans to gain the upper hand in Unigov, Indianapolis' version of merged government. Critics say the city's success largely came at the expense of black residents and Democratic voters.

Detective Melody Quinn of the St. Louis County Police Department leads a class outlining the myths and dangers of the sythetic opioid fentanyl, which was involved in the majority of the county's overdose deaths last year.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Officials from the St. Louis County Police Department want the public and the region’s law enforcement to know touching the synthetic opioid fentanyl won’t get them high or overdose.

Such myths could put overdose victims at risk, since emergency responders may be hesitant to touch or treat them.

In recent months, several police reports and media outlets have recounted stories of law enforcement officers getting high or sick after responding to overdose victims and getting fentanyl powder on their hands.

Wikimedia Commons

The Washington University School of Medicine will more than double the number of students receiving full tuition each year thanks to $100 million in scholarship funding.

Officials from the medical program on Tuesday announced the boost in scholarships, which will be provided throughout the next 10 years. The scholarships are aimed at recruiting more low-income students and people of color and reducing the massive amount of medical school debt students incur.

“They look at our tuition and they don’t even consider applying because of concern they would accumulate very large amounts of debt,” said Eva Aagaard, the school’s senior associate dean for education. “This might change their mind, and we might see a really different population applying and being accepted into Wash U.”

jpellegen | Flickr

Food insecurity is affecting a significant number of seniors, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. A recently released report found 12% of Missouri seniors did not have consistent access to food in 2015.

Close to 170,000 older Missourians — or 1 in 8 of the state’s seniors — suffer from food insecurity. That’s when a person can’t safely access healthy food due to cost, lack of transportation or other factors. With seniors in already-vulnerable health, a lack of healthy food can cause new health conditions and make existing ones such as high blood pressure or diabetes more serious.

Angela Brown is acting CEO of the Regional Health Commission, which administers the Gateway To Better Health program for uninsured people in the St. Louis region.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Gateway to Better Health, a health care program for poor and uninsured people in St. Louis, will soon cover treatment for people addicted to opioids and other substances, its leaders announced Tuesday.

Gateway to Better Health is a state-sponsored program that provides health care to nearly 20,000 St. Louis and St. Louis County residents who often can’t afford health insurance but don’t qualify for the state’s Medicaid program. It provides primary, specialty and urgent care at the region’s five federally qualified health centers and at St. Louis County-run health clinics.

New nurse Becky Boesch looks through files as part of her job as a nurse in the cardiac step-down unit at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri State Board of Nursing has approved expanding five of the state’s nursing programs, adding 250 slots for future students.

State officials say the move aims to help reduce nursing vacancies. The profession has one of the highest vacancy rates in the health sector, with 13 percent of positions unfilled in Missouri, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

About 60 percent of the approximately 70,000 Missourians purged from the state’s Medicaid program in 2018 lost coverage because they failed to reply to a mailed renewal form, according to state data.

The Missouri Department of Social Services started using an automated system to determine residents’ Medicaid eligibility last year. If the system couldn’t find their information, the state mailed enrollees renewal forms to complete and return.

Some health experts and state officials are concerned people otherwise eligible for the program are living without insurance because they never received the mail.

Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery Executive Director stands beside the nonprofit's mobile outreach van. The decal on the back window represents the molecule naloxone, a chemical that can reverse and overdose.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

A St. Louis nonprofit is sending outreach workers to city streets to dispense life-saving treatment from a newly refurbished ambulance.

The Missouri Network For Opiate Reform and Recovery will use the vehicle to dispense the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to active drug users and those in recovery. It also provides testing for sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV and information about treatment programs.

The mobile unit extends the nonprofit’s reach beyond its headquarters at 4022 S. Broadway.

Grandmaster chess player Susan Polgar will be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, the youngest woman to be awarded the honor.
Susan Polgar

A Webster University chess coach will today become the youngest woman to be inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Susan Polgár was the first woman to win the coveted grandmaster title through traditional tournament play in 1991. The Hungarian-born champion has broken gender barriers in the male-dominated chess world during a career that spans five decades.

“There will be naysayers, and there will be men that don’t want to see women succeed, especially in a male-dominated field,” she said. “But don’t let that hold you back — just work harder and prove them wrong.”

Saint Louis University School of Medicine recently was taken off probation by the nation's accrediting body.
Wikimedia Commons

A survey of first-year St. Louis University medical students found those who described themselves as perfectionists were more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

The findings, published in February in the journal Academic Psychiatry, show the thought processes that are lauded in high-achieving fields such as medicine can have a serious effect on students’ well-being.

“We then essentially found evidence these toxic thought patterns would contribute to distress and even mental health conditions in medical students,” said survey author Stuart Slavin, the medical school's former associate dean of curriculum.

A person prepares a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which protects against 93-97 percent of measles cases. Health officials say a case has been reported in Jefferson County.
Matthew Lotz / U.S. Air Force

Health officials in Jefferson County are trying to find people who may have come in contact with a person there who has caught measles.

The person caught the virus after traveling, according to officials at the Jefferson County Health Department. The department is “working directly with the case to identify potential contacts and make arrangements for follow up immunizations and care if necessary,” officials said in a release.

Measles infects the respiratory system and can cause deafness, blindness and can even be fatal in some rare cases. People who contract the measles develop a distinctive red, splotchy rash over their bodies. There is no specific antiviral treatment or medicine for measles, but giving a person a vaccine soon after they’ve been infected may lessen symptoms.

April Thomas (left) and Cory Lampkin (right) visited Jamaa Birth Village with their daughter Addisonkori in March. March 4, 2019.
Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

Brittany "Tru" Kellman sometimes starts her day two hours before Jamaa Birth Village opens at 10 a.m., stashing diapers and snacks for the dozens of people who will come through the Ferguson nonprofit’s doors. She gives everyone a hug when she meets them.

Jamaa is different from other pregnancy clinics. It provides care for women of color by women of color. After traumatic experiences as a teen mom, Kellman was determined to create a better alternative for black women.

“Creating Jamaa Birth Village is a kind of a re-creation of the type of care and support I gave myself when the system failed me,” said Kellman, the center’s founder.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with removing the radioactive waste from the downtown St. Louis site, which includes the Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals plant.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is close to finishing its removal of World War II-era radioactive waste from the Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals plant in downtown St. Louis.

Uranium, radium and thorium leached into the land around the plant during the 1940s and 50s when Mallinckrodt Chemical Works manufactured uranium to create atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project. The Corps of Engineers has been removing the contaminated soil since 1998.

Six decades ago, the uranium processors simply dumped waste down the drain, said Susan Adams, the project engineer for the clean-up efforts at the site.

Keith Carter, 53, waits to pick up a prescription for diabetes at Affinia Healthcare in St. Louis. Though he falls in the income gap, he's able to get his preventive care covered through Gateway to Better Health.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri likely would not have to spend any additional money to expand Medicaid to insure more low-income people, according to a report from the Washington University Center on Health Economics and Policy.

The state spends nearly $4 billion to provide Medicaid to people with disabilities, pregnant women, children and some seniors.

Researchers say adding people who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty rate – close to $17,000 annually – likely wouldn’t cost Missouri extra funds, because the state would receive increased federal funding under a Medicaid expansion.

Cannabis plants grow under orange sodium lights in a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Oakland, California.
Rusty Blazenhoff | Flickr

Missouri’s health department has already fielded more than 400 pre-applications from potential marijuana growers and sellers.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which will administer the state’s medical marijuana program, won’t begin accepting formal applications for dispensaries, cultivation facilities and manufacturing plants until summer.

That hasn’t stopped potential businesses from paying more than $3 million in application fees to the state.

Dominic Alves | Flickr

Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis has cut testing for urinary tract infections nearly in half after making changes to its electronic health records system.

The hospital did so by making a simple switch: it changed the order in which it conducted tests for the infections. Physicians are now directed to order a dipstick urine test before a bacterial culture to test for an infection. The change cut the number of unnecessary tests by 45 percent. Barnes officials say that saved the hospital nearly $100,000 in lab costs and cut down on unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.

The results show that changing how tests are ordered electronically can influence patient care, said David Warren, the hospital’s medical director for infection prevention.

Missouri Speaker of the House Todd Richardson listens to representatives speak on the last day of the legislative session.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

A Missouri lawmaker is demanding that state health officials explain how 73,000 people dropped off Medicaid rolls last year.

The state debuted an automated system in 2018 to help identify people who were no longer eligible for Medicaid, the health-insurance program for low-income and disabled people. Among the system's critics is state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, who worries that its flaws led to the nearly 7 percent drop in Medicaid enrollment. Most of the people who lost coverage are children.

Department of Social Services officials have pointed to decreased unemployment as one reason for the drop, but Sifton thinks the numbers don’t add up.

The Food and Drug Administration has warned a St. Louis area company to stop marketing supplements such as omega-3 capsules as potential cures for diseases. It says doing so violates federal law, because supplements aren't FDA-approved drugs.
rawdonfox | Flickr

The federal Food and Drug Administration has ordered a St. Louis-area natural-remedy retailer to stop making medical claims on its website.

Chesterfield-based Earth Turns, L.L.C. claimed on its website that certain products could cure or prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes, wrote the FDA in a letter to the company. Retailers are only allowed to make such claims about government-approved drugs, the letter said, and such claims could put patients at risk.

Office of The Mayor

The St. Louis Department of Health's new director plans to make addressing the city's high rate of sexually transmitted diseases a top priority.

Fredrick Echols will become the city’s new health director Feb. 19, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced Thursday. Echols is currently director of communicable diseases for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

Echols said he’ll bring his experience controlling infections to St. Louis, which for years has been among the U.S. cities with the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Nausha Russ and her 2-month-old daughter Aliza, were enrolled in the "Fresh Rx" program, which delivers healthy food weekly to food-insecure moms.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

A local food bank has teamed up with a north St. Louis hospital to offer a “fresh-food prescription” service for low-income, pregnant mothers.

Not having access to healthy food during pregnancy can cause serious health problems for mothers and their babies. The need for healthy food is especially acute in St. Louis, where in some neighborhoods full-service grocery stores are hard to find.

SSM Health DePaul’s OB Care Center and local food bank Operation Food Search partnered to create the “Fresh R-X” program. Doctors and nurse practitioners screen expecting mothers for food insecurity during checkups. If they find the women haven’t been able to afford food at any point within the last year, they’re given the option to enroll in the weekly delivery service for the duration of their pregnancy.

An illustration of prescription drugs.
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

To measure how healthy a community is, health experts often look to life expectancy – how long a person is expected to live assuming no major catastrophies occur. It’s what’s called an indicator, or a statistic that reflects overall well-being.

For decades, the life expectancy in the United States steadily increased as medical breakthroughs helped people live longer. But in the past few years, life expectancy has started to decrease – an unprecedented step backward in the modern age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a trio of reports late last year, attributed the decrease to significantly growing numbers of drug overdoses and suicides. Missouri has followed the national trend.

Six years ago, a Missourian was expected to live for nearly 78 years. Now, that number is closer to 77. St. Louis Public Radio reporter Sarah Fentem talked to Rachel Winograd of the University of Missouri – St. Louis to find out what can be done.

Cancer survivor Jim Nace poses in his Ballwin home.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Two decades ago, Jim Nace was a national ice cream salesman, on cross-country flights 20 days a month. He was on top of the world.

“I had a great lifestyle, lots of money, vacations; I was very caught up in the world I was in,” he said. “And then I got a sore throat.”

His wife, a dental hygienist, saw something that didn’t look quite right. A visit to the doctor confirmed the worst: It was tonsil cancer. Soon after his diagnosis, his company terminated his job.

More people are surviving cancer each year. But as patients face life after treatment, many find the burden of cancer doesn’t end when remission starts. Cancer can cause depression in patients just as the world expects them to celebrate.

Cenya Davis puffs on her inhaler earlier this month. The 8-year-old student at Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis has been to the hospital three times for breathing trouble starting in December. She now regularly uses the inhaler.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

The vast majority of St. Louis emergency room visits for asthma are from black children, according to report from Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office.

The Equity Indicators report found black children are 10 times as likely as white children to visit the emergency room for asthma-related health problems, making it the lowest-scoring indicator of the 72 measures studied by the city.

The report is part of the city’s larger Equity Indicators Project, which measures racial disparities in health care, education, employment and other areas.

Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

The number of cases reported in Missouri this flu season is only a fifth of last year’s, thanks in part to mild temperatures.

There have been 5,460 flu cases reported to the state since early October, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. That’s less than one-fifth the number of cases reported during the same period in 2018.

The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the worst in recent memory. In Missouri alone, more than 300 people died from the flu.

The study examined over 580,000 patient records collected over a 20-year period and found women were more likely to survive a heart attack when treated by a female doctor than a male doctor.
Maria Fabrizio | NPR

African-Americans have lower levels of a key protein associated with Alzheimer's disease, which could keep blacks with the disease from being diagnosed, according to Washington University researchers.

In a 12-year study of 1,255 participants, the researchers found black patients have a much lower baseline level of the protein tau, which is present in higher amounts in patients with the neurodegenerative disease. Because doctors look for the protein when diagnosing Alzheimer's, lower levels in black patients mean they may not be diagnosed as quickly as their white counterparts.

As a result, black patients — already disproportionately affected by the disease — may not receive proper care, the study's authors said.

Jennifer Ludden | NPR

Controversial changes to Missouri's home health-services program by former Gov. Eric Greitens and the Republican-controlled legislature saved one fourth of the $43 million lawmakers had expected, according a state audit.

The Republican governor and state lawmakers didn’t take rising costs and sicker patients into account, concluded the report from State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat. 

Washington University medical student Jae Lee speaks at the opening of the Empower Through Health clinic in Mpunde, Uganda
Empower Through Health

A new clinic in a remote Ugandan village has its roots in St. Louis.

The clinic in the rural village of Mpunde is the brainchild of two Washington University medical school students, who started the nonprofit Empower Through Health after researching stomach ulcers in Ugandans.

Medical students Jae Lee and Gautam Adusumilli founded the community health center after Lee's many trips to the East African country of Uganda to research malaria and other health problems.