FEATURE — Summer 2009


Creating a Vision of a Healthy Life

A hypertension specialist, alumna Cheryl (Rucker) Whitaker, M.D. ’93, is the senior program officer for health at the Chicago Community Trust Foundation. She was in the process of switching from being medical director of the Hypertension Center at Rush University Medical Center when the interview for this story was conducted. (Photo: Ron Vesely)

Hypertension specialist Cheryl (Rucker) Whitaker, M.D. ’93, shows patients and now other members of the Chicago community connections between actions and health outcomes—and inspires them to participate in improving their well-being.

By Diane Duke Williams

Known as the “silent killer,” hypertension often has no symptoms or comes on so gradually that symptoms get overlooked. Many people may be unaware for years that they have the condition, also called high blood pressure.

“If we can figure out how to control hypertension, we can save a lot of lives,” says Cheryl (Rucker) Whitaker, M.D. ’93, a hypertension specialist. “I was drawn to this area of medicine because it is a chronic condition that affects so many people.”

Hypertension makes the heart work harder to pump blood to the body, leading to hardening of the arteries and heart failure. It is by far the largest risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney diseases.

One of every four adults in the United States has hypertension. The exact causes are not known, but people are more apt to have the condition if they’re older, African American, overweight, or have a family history of the disease.

Physicians use an arsenal of medications to treat hypertension, in addition to recommending that patients exercise, quit smoking, cut down on salt in their diets, lose weight, and manage stress.

As senior program officer for health at the Chicago Community Trust Foundation, Whitaker will help decide which health programs receive $6 million. She says: “I will miss my patients, but I wanted an opportunity for my work to have a broader impact now.” ©iStockphoto

As medical director of the Hypertension Center and assistant professor of preventive medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Whitaker’s not going to threaten or demand that her patients make changes to better manage their high blood pressure. She calmly explains how high blood pressure works and how modifications in lifestyle or medication could help—and then lets patients decide the next step.

“I try to help people realize the connection between what they do now and how that will affect their health 20 to 30 years from now,” she says. “I want to encourage patients to be active participants in their condition.”

Whitaker is one of a growing group of physicians who believe that a patient is the expert on his or her disease and has some control over the outcome. And she is an expert trainer in the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, which provides six-week workshops for people with different chronic health problems. The workshops, in senior centers, libraries, and other community settings, address techniques to deal with frustration; fatigue and pain; appropriate use of medications; communicating effectively with family, friends, and health professionals; and evaluating new treatments, in addition to other issues.

One of Whitaker’s patients, an African-American woman in her 50s, had high blood pressure that could not be controlled. The two determined that her biggest problems were lack of activity and weight. Working with a nutritionist, the patient changed her eating habits and started exercising on a regular basis with her husband. She lost 20 pounds, and her blood pressure has come down. “Her journey was so inspiring,” Whitaker says. “She feels so much better. She comes into the office looking so sassy and dressed up. I saw her self-esteem going through the roof.”

In addition to treating patients, Whitaker has led major clinical studies at Rush that attempt to improve behavioral and coping skills for people living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart failure. She received the Secretary of Health and Human Services Award for Innovations in Health for her proposal to develop an exercise program for African-American women and was honored for her work on disparities in amputation rates between African Americans and Caucasians.

Another hat Whitaker wears is hosting a weekly radio segment called “Health Matters” on a Chicago radio station, WVON AM 1690. “I get to pick the health topic and try to present it in a way that most people can understand,” she says. “Doing the radio show is a way to give back to the community.”

Whitaker grew up in the small town of Washington, Georgia, the oldest child of working class parents. She decided that she wanted to become a doctor when she was 9 years old. Although her family emphasized helping others, she was discouraged from her career choice. “Even though I had top grades in school, they didn’t think a poor girl could do this, and to them the dream seemed very far away and unattainable,” she says. “It was pretty much by sheer will and determination that I reached this goal.”

Whitaker enjoyed medical school at Washington University, and some of her favorite memories are of studying all night with fellow students who became lifelong friends. They often drove to Ted Drewes for concretes during study breaks. At the School of Medicine, Whitaker considered becoming an ophthalmologist. But while earning a master’s degree in public health at the Harvard University School of Public Health after graduating from medical school, she realized she was more a generalist than a specialist.

She completed training in internal medicine at Stanford University Hospital and a residency in primary care internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where she developed expertise in health-care delivery to the urban poor and underserved. Additionally, she pursued a fellowship in health services research at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

In 1997, Whitaker joined the community faculty of the University of Chicago, where she met a young administrator whose husband was an Illinois senator. Whitaker and her husband, Dr. Eric Whitaker, became very good friends with the young couple, Michelle and Barack Obama. While all living on the South Side of Chicago, they got to know each other through barbecues, Scrabble® games, and vacations. Eric Whitaker, now an executive vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center, traveled with Obama during the final days of his campaign and was part of his frequent basketball games.

Whitaker, her husband, and their children, Caleb and Caitlin, also attended the presidential inauguration. “We were exhausted when it was over—it was like being at your best friend’s wedding for five or six days straight,” she says. “But it was an amazing opportunity to be a part of history.”

At the time of the interview for this article, soon upon returning from the inauguration, Whitaker was packing boxes in her office to move to a new position. She had been named a senior program officer for health at the Chicago Community Trust Foundation, which supports the arts, economic development, health, education, and other programs across the greater Chicago area. Whitaker will help decide each year which health programs receive a total of $6 million.

“I will miss my patients, but I wanted an opportunity for my work to have a broader impact now,” she says. “A decision to fund a proposal could benefit several hundred people in a day!”

Diane Duke Williams is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.