Image: Dwight Woods, Meghan Welsh
Jeff Roberson  /  AP
Dwight Woods, right, smiles as nursing student Meghan Welsh takes his blood pressure at Flotrin's Barber Shop in St. Louis.
updated 4/12/2009 2:36:02 PM ET 2009-04-12T18:36:02

When Robert Hibler stopped by his barber, he got a new haircut — and a wake-up call.

Two nursing students visited Flotrin’s Barber Shop in north St. Louis offering to take customers’ blood pressure, and Hibler’s was high: 145/90.

Hibler, 44, doesn’t like to go to the doctor even if he’s sick. Not anymore.

“After the high blood pressure reading, I did get a whole physical, health screening — the whole nine yards,” Hibler said.

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From New York to Los Angeles to St. Louis, health workers are going to barbershops, long a gathering place for black men, to provide screenings to those who may not get regular checkups.

What’s offered varies from city to city. In St. Louis, the nursing students have joined with the nonprofit organization 100 Black Men, which works for community improvement, and a professional nursing sorority, Chi Eta Phi, to measure blood pressure.

High blood pressure — often called the “silent killer” because it has no symptoms — increases a person’s chances for heart disease, stroke and other serious problems. But it’s easy to check for and usually can be controlled through exercise, diet and medicine.

‘A very open environment’
For decades, doctors have noted that a higher percentages of black Americans have high blood pressure than whites. The reasons for that include poverty and cultural habits. Both can prevent people from exercising, eating healthy foods and getting in to see a good doctor.

The nursing students also provide information about prostate cancer — the second leading cause of cancer death in black men — and about clinics that offer complete hypertension checks or cancer screenings.

Are you at risk of a heart attack?“We were really, really shocked in the beginning,” said Julie Willems, a nursing student from Saint Louis University who performs health checks at many of the barbershops. “We thought people would be really resistant, but the barbershop is a place where people feel comfortable talking about just about anything. It’s a very open environment.”

Health educators point to a number of reasons why men, particularly black men, are hard to reach for early health screenings and preventive care. Many men are not in the habit of routine visits. Instead, they go to the doctor when they’re in pain, or have symptoms of an illness.

For some, there’s an element of mistrust in the medical establishment, or a feeling that they’re better off not knowing if they feel there’s not much they can do about it.

“People think what they don’t know can’t hurt them, but it can,” said Dennis Mitchell, owner of Denny Moe’s Superstar Barbershop in Harlem. His shop has hosted several health-related events in the past three years, a decision Mitchell said was fueled by watching his own relatives struggle with health problems, especially cancer.

‘You ambushed me’
Barbers often help the health workers get conversations going with customers — and whoever else might be within earshot.

At Flotrin’s, where pictures of Muhammad Ali and the Obamas share wall space with owner Donna Baker’s relatives, she opened her front door recently and encouraged a handyman walking by to come in and get his blood pressure checked.

“You ambushed me, girl,” joked Wendell Steward, 54, before the students told him his reading was just fine.

Prostate cancerBaker talked about high blood pressure issues in her own family and her efforts to keep hers in check.

“We need our men around,” she said as she maneuvered her clippers through a head of hair. “If you can’t find black men all in one place, you can find them here in the barbershop.” She encourages her female customers to get their blood pressure checked, too, while the nursing students were at the shop.

In some cities, the checks extend way beyond the blood pressure cuff.

In New York, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center teamed up with Abyssinian Baptist Church and Harlem barbershops, and for two days last summer offered cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose screenings. A mobile van parked outside Denny Moe’s, with health workers offering HIV rapid tests, blood tests and private digital rectal exams by a urologist to help diagnose possible prostate cancer.

“Every time they give me a reason why they shouldn’t (be tested), I give them two reasons why they should,” said Marian Scott, the hospital’s director of community health education programs. “There’s a possibility it could save your life.”

Hibler was recently laid off, but his past military service had allowed him to visit his own doctor, who gave him a passing grade on his health. But because of the barbershop visit, Hibler has cut back on fatty and salty foods.

He returned to Flotrin’s when the nursing students were visiting to have his blood pressure monitored again. And this time the news was good: It was back in normal range.

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