Howell Foundation: 20 years of advocacy for women’s health issues

For almost two decades, the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research has been working to fulfill its mission: “keeping the women we love healthy.”

In November, the La Jolla-based group will celebrate its 20th year of funding education and research through scholarships for undergraduate students, educational events (luncheons and evening lectures) and its new Community Engagement Initiative.

“We began by fundraising and awarding two or three research scholarships a year,” said 14-year board member Kay Christian. “To date, we’ve given over $500,000 to over 200 scholars.” Annually, the foundation presents the scholarships to a UCSD student, to the California State University system, and to one University of San Diego nursing student to fund his or her Ph.D. dissertation impacting women’s health.

Board chair Carole Banka said a foundation’s goal is to build the endowment so whatever the future holds, its proceeds will ensure one scholarship to each of those universities each year.

Banka pointed out Dan Hemmati, who used the assistance he received 10 years ago to study the BRCA1 gene. Mutations to the BRCA1 gene have been linked to increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers, and became a hot topic when actress Angelina Jolie announced she had a mutated BRCA1 gene, prompting her to undergo a double mastectomy and have her ovaries removed. Hemmati’s work outlined how these mutations can be identified.

Additional fundraising for the scholarships comes from quarterly luncheons that feature a speaker from the medical field. The luncheons also help the foundation fulfill its educational mission.

“When people think of women’s health, they think of gynecology and (breast health),” Banka said. “But take for example, heart disease. Heart disease is a very different animal in women than it is in men. The same goes for diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases and many others.” She added each luncheon presentation includes research-based information.

Board member Brad Benter said by offering informative luncheons, he has seen women “become their own advocates” in the health realm.

“I’ve seen the lectures empower women to take the reigns and ask doctors questions they wouldn’t have thought of before,” he said. The “token male” joined the board five years ago to be part of the effort to fund more research. “I have a mom, a sister, a wife and aunts, so I’ve been surrounded by women my whole life and I know they are the core of the family. As everyone knows ... when something happens to mom, things fall apart,” he said.

To reach a broader audience, the board also launched evening lectures that focus on emotional health and wellbeing, and are free to those who can’t get away for afternoon programs. These are held at the McMillin Center in Liberty Station, Point Loma. “The evening events focus more on psychological issues that women cope with, whereas our luncheon series has always looked at the medical, physical aspect of healthcare for women,” Banka said, noting previous evening lectures have covered stress, parenting and depression.

“If you’re going to address women’s health, you have to address both the psychological and the physical. You can’t be totally healthy if you aren’t healthy in mind and body,” she said. “I harken back to my mother’s generation, which in some ways was considered a happier generation than now, but there was this closet use of tranquilizers back then. These women weren’t challenged, they hadn’t yet moved into the workplace, and after a while, running a household became less than challenging.

“Today, we have the opposite problem. Women are involved with too many things because they are almost all in the workforce, so they are running a home, working, taking children to soccer, preparing meals, etc., playing vastly broader roles than they did in the past. Instead of addressing the psychological sequelae of not having challenges, we address the psychological issues of having too many challenges.” Details on the next evening series have not been announced.

The third facet of the Howell Foundation’s mission, Community Engagement Initiative, now in its third year, funds specific projects by local researchers and academic institutions. The first examined Latina women in their first pregnancies, who are at risk for gestational diabetes and hypertension, and found ways to avoid these conditions.

The second project instituted a program at San Diego State University to teach incoming freshman how to avoid weight gain (aka “freshman 15”) and lead healthier lives during their first year away from home.

“We’re looking now for the third project to fund, so we can put foundation money to work and do research with established groups,” Benter said. “The more money we have from donors, the more we are able to do.”

Christian said foundation namesake, 91-year-old Doris Howell, M.D. of La Jolla, founded the organization because she wanted to improve women’s health issues. “Dr. Howell’s been saying for 30 years that medical research has focused on men and not on women,” she said. “Dr. Howell was cutting-edge with her ideas and wanted to focus on research at the scholarly level.”

Howell received her medical degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada before attending Duke University to complete her residency in pediatrics. She worked at UCSD’s hematology oncology division in the department of pediatrics. Howell was named the first female chair of the UCSD Department of Community and Family Medicine. To learn more, visit howellfoundation.org

Howell Foundation Luncheon, May 28

■ Heather Hofflich, clinical professor of medicine at UCSD, will discuss osteoporosis at noon, Thursday, May 28. Location and tickets at howellfoundation.org

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