Wellsburg Wellness Program Lifts Health in West Virginia

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Bayer's wellness program initiated a number of exercise and fitness activities, such as this water aerobics class.

Step through the doorway of the Bayer Wellness office right at 12 p.m. and, the next thing you know, you’ll be headed right back out on the “Noon Exercise Walk.” While trim Dr. Bill Reger, the head coach (i.e., wellness program director), cheerfully dispenses such advice as “Eat fat, get fat,” you’ll pace briskly through the town, caught up in conversation about cholesterol levels and optimum pulse rates.

You’ve found Wellness, W.Va. Excuse me, Wellsburg , W.Va. Eleven thousand people live in this town, wedged in the wild, wonderful northern panhandle between the Ohio River on the west and Pennsylvania’s mountains on the east. Wellsburg’s a factory town — glass, steel, plastic fuel cans, Pillsbury flour bags, and even McDonald’s Happy Meals boxes are cranked out by people working “turns” in the riverside mills. It’s a football town — the Brooke High Bruins fans often outnumber the opposition’s supporters at away games. (The school has a new half stadium, with press box, full facilities and seats for almost 3,000 fans on the Bruins’ side, and a few bleachers and four portable toilets for the visitors.) It’s also a bit of a tourist town with a recently renovated historic town plaza and summer steamboats and tour buses.

Last spring, Wellsburg welcomed a surprising new industry into its midst: health. Like the unseen rich donor on the old “Millionaire” TV show, the Bayer Company had been looking to bequeath a large gift. Bayer’s target: a small town with both bad health and good community spirit. Wellsburg had both. West Virginia is second only to Iowa in heart-disease deaths, yet — along with Bruin fever — the city has several volunteer organizations and a very strong sense of civic pride.

Add in a serendipitous name (the city is named after Bezaleal Wells, son of its founder), and the company had found the perfect recipient for its unique present: the $4 million Bayer Wellness Program.

“In three months, I’ve lost nine pounds and dropped my pulse from 90 to 70, and my cholesterol level has gone from 273 to 185.”

In cowboy hat and Nike sneakers, Merle Wesley is a regular noon walker. Like everyone involved in the town’s wellness program, Merle will tell you his cholesterol level quicker than singles-bar patrons once recited their astrology signs.

In May, Merle was one of 1,000 Wellsburgians who underwent half-hour health screenings of cholesterol, weight, blood sugar, body fat, pulse rate, blood pressure, and stamina. They attended individual health reviews and goal-setting interviews. Then those residents who were screened — and the county’s 30,000 other residents — were offered a barrage of free health programs and seminars promoting the overall lifestyle changes necessary to beat back heart disease. Soon, stretching, aerobic, and water aerobic classes abounded. (Before the Friday football games, you could even attend a 45-minute “Pregame Workout.”) Dawn walkers proliferated like rabbits on rich pasture. Restaurants offered “healthy heart” menus. Grocery stores suffered from bran shortages.

Bayer imported two of the program’s most impressive offerings from the National Center for Health Promotion. Leaner Weight, a permanent weight-loss and cholesterol reduction program, stressed understanding food nutrition and labeling, making moderate diet changes, and adapting favorite but unhealthful recipes for the better.

By October, 150 Wellsburgians had already been through the 16-week program, and another 200 were on the waiting list. One resident screened commented on the program’s effects, “I was in the Shop-N-Save, minding my own business, when this woman I’d never seen before looked up from a soup can and said, ‘Here I am, 57-years-old, and I’ve never read a food label in my life!’”

Where Leaner Weight took a gradual approach, Smoke Stoppers went for a clean, quit-now kill. It offered encouragement (sympathy from an instructor who’s an ex-smoker), reward (put the money you save in a jar, then spend it on a treat) and negative reinforcement (smartly snap an elastic wristband — inscribed with “I choose not to smoke” — every time you feel the urge to light up).

Smoke Stoppers’ most dramatic technique was “negative smoking.” After instructor Pat Peel dimmed the lights, the 15 attendees (sporting everything from high heels to a cap claiming, “I’m not a hard drinker. It’s the easiest thing I do.”) rapidly chain-smoked four cigarettes. They weren’t allowed to inhale or even hold the cigarettes, just puff frantically. As Peel played a tape of obnoxious static and flashed slides of deteriorated lung tissue, thick tobacco smog quickly filled the room. Lifetime pack-a-day smokers teared and coughed in the fumes. And all the while, Pat (breathing through a respirator) yelled “Puff, puff, puff. This is what you’ve been missing all day long! Puff, puff, puff!”

Every member of the nicotine-starved class admitted the experience was horrible. But effective — 75 Wellsburgians have already quit smoking. (Smoke Stoppers boasts that 50 percent to 70 percent of its graduates are still not smoking a year after they finished the course.) Are the other aspects of the Bayer Wellness Program having an equal impact? The full study won’t be completed for two years, but at the first tri-monthly checkpoint, the answer was clearly yes. Screened residents’ average cholesterol level had dropped from 219.7 to 201.4. They had lost a total of 3,584 pounds (or 1.8 tons, according to a press release).

And health had become a topic of widespread, often lighthearted, conversation — even at parties: “My husband ate so much turkey his cholesterol dropped 50 points. He’s picked up a new habit, though: gobbling.”

“I know a woman who dropped her cholesterol all the way to 140. I asked her how in the world she did it, and she said, ‘Any time I put a food in my mouth, if it tastes good, I spit it out!’”

Of course, not everyone in town has health fever. Drop into the Corner Lunch for a rich bacon-and-eggs breakfast or Lucky’s Lounge for an evening burger and beer, and you’ll be quickly reminded that the Bayer programs currently affect no more than 20 percent of the local population. But participant or not, everyone in Wellsburg has been affected by one aspect of the program: publicity.

Prodded by Hill and Knowlton (Bayer’s public relations firm), network news stations, national magazines, and big-city newspapers have sent cameras and reporters into this little town, creating a phenomenon almost as interesting as the program itself. People like Arlene Smith (cholesterol down 38 points) admit that being on “Good Morning, America” and other shows has made them “pretty blase” about the media. Others, such as a woman who has both quit smoking and quit talking about it, now evades all intrusion.

Some people see humor in the self-important operatives of America’s eye. Town reporter Matz Malone recalls the time ABC brought in its big satellite feed. “It looked like the reporters were getting ready for a space shot. They started interviewing Mayor Cipriani in front of the courthouse, but the janitor was cutting the grass and the lawn mower made too much noise. They asked him to stop, went back to interviewing, but just then the town clock started to go off. They grabbed the janitor again and told him to please turn those chimes off!”

A few people expressed resentment at being constantly probed (“I told my aerobics instructor that if I get one more boom mike thrust in my face during exercise class, I quit!”) and sometimes stereotyped (“A lot of the media act like everybody in West Virginia is overweight and has a heart problem. You want to see overweight America? Just look around any major city air terminal!”). More than one person wondered how much of the $4 million Bayer is spending is going into the Wellsburg program and how much into its clearly successful publicity campaign.

Bayer has consciously avoided advocating any pharmaceuticals (including its own product) in the Wellsburg program, so it’s safe to say that overexposure has been the program’s only unintended side effect. And almost everyone in town realizes that the benefits of this community therapy definitely outweigh such annoying inconveniences. Then, too, Bayer spokespersons say that at the end of the two year period they hope to have developed a low-cost wellness model that can be shared with other small communities across the country. The facts that the program has only three paid staffers and 115 volunteers are strengths.

What will happen to Wellsburg’s programs when Bayer pulls out? Can the financially strapped county health department really pick up the slack? What should one make of the aspirin company’s peculiar mix of altruism and self-interest?

Director Bill Reger admits such large questions beg to be answered, but he emphasizes the positive aspects of the program: “So much money in America is spent on illness care, but almost nothing is spent on promoting wellness.” Bayer president Robin Mills “guarantees” that every dollar spent on the Wellsburg program yields $2 or more in productivity and medical savings.

But the true salespeople for the program are, simply, the participants themselves. An anxious schoolteacher going through the painful trauma of renouncing tobacco, the middle-aged bachelor quietly learning to modify lifelong eating habits, and the pleased young hairdresser who has walked off 30 pounds at the high school track are each human stories of commitment and improvement is an independent inspiration, the real reason this corporate-city program must be counted a success.

Meanwhile in the Rest of America

Bayer and Wellsburg weren’t the only corporation and city recently married at the altar of public health. Last February, the Kellogg Company persuaded Jackson, Miss., and Lansing, Mich., to face off in a “Cholesterol Challenge.” Thousands of people in both of these cities had their cholesterol levels tested. Six months later, they were rescreened, and the city with the most overall improvement received a trophy.

The Kellogg program was not as broad as Bayer’s. It consisted mostly of distributing an educational newsletter and convenient fat-and-cholesterol counters. Yet it had an impact — at least in Jackson, Miss. The 7,000 Mississippians who went through both screenings lowered their average cholesterol from 212 to 199 (just under the recommended upper limit of 200).

The 2,000 Lansing residents who went through both screenings, however, showed no improvement. Their cholesterol levels stayed at 218, a borderline, high-risk number. Kellogg spokespersons say Jackson showed more community commitment. Local businesses supported the effort, and the TV stations did more stories on the challenge. For winning, the friendly political wager was that Jackson’s mayor received cases of Michigan trout and blueberries from his Lansing counterpart. (He had agreed to send up a dinner of southern-broiled — not fried — catfish if Jackson, Miss., lost.) Then, in a surprise announcement, Kellogg committed $200,000 to the city for further community health education.