As a nurse who witnessed how cancer and chronic disease ravaged patients, Debbie Chatman Bryant was determined to do something to help people in South Carolina’s Low Country coastal region fight the disease. However, she found that change did not come easily.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced in treating low-income or uninsured patients was that even if we did manage to diagnose them in time, they would not come back for treatment,” said Bryant, director of the Hollings Cancer Center Outreach Services Program at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The program addresses cancer disparities among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region.

“They were afraid of the cost and they didn’t trust the system,” she said. “So we needed to create a system patients would trust so they could get both diagnosed and treated.” Bryant expanded outreach efforts and changed the communication approach.

She also wanted patients to be aware of clinical trials and other treatment options. She used a mobile screening van to link the region’s community health centers to Hollings and to provide care in areas where there were very few or no providers.

For her determination to prevent and treat cancer among the medically underserved, Bryant has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Bryant will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.

“When we find something abnormal, we immediately connect the patient with a ‘lay navigator,’” said Bryant. Navigators make sure the patient makes diagnostic follow-up and treatment appointments. “And if not,” said Bryant, “we literally drive to their house and knock on the door.”

Bryant’s efforts have paid off. The number of mobile-unit screenings increased from 1,300 in 2006 to over 2,000 in both 2010 and 2011. More than half of the patients screened were uninsured or underinsured, and nearly two-thirds of those served say they would not have been screened if not for the mobile van. The program has decreased the number of patients lost to follow-up from 11 percent in 2009 to less than 5 percent in 2010.

Janice Ford Griffin, national program director for Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Bryant for her perseverance in innovating and executing strategies that respect and engage the diverse communities in the Low Country, and to treat these patients as active participants in realistic and practical steps to improve their health. “Dr. Bryant provides a crucial link in assuring residents’ access to information about clinical trials and other sophisticated medical concepts, while at the same time actively mentoring nursing and medical students with advice and support as they pursue their careers.”

As a child growing up in South Carolina during the end of segregation, Bryant was the only African American in the classroom and was often ignored by teachers. It was her family who helped her to believe in herself. Nursing is Bryant’s second career, and she says she never would have completed graduate school and her doctorate without her family’s encouragement. She also believes that family is the key to promoting healthy behaviors. “I’ve seen families provide incredible support to one another in sickness. Now we need to support each other in health,” Bryant said. “And that means making healthy foods part of our family traditions, or taking a walk together after a family meal. We can do this. We have to.”

Thaddeus John Bell, MD, president and chief executive officer of Closing the Gap in Health Care, Inc., wrote a letter supporting Bryant’s nomination. “Debbie’s commitment to improving processes, engaging stakeholders, and energizing individuals and organizations alike is more than commendable. I have witnessed firsthand her work in bringing attention to and overcoming barriers to cancer screening, early diagnosis, and treatment among our poor and underserved communities through her outreach and education work at the Hollings Cancer Center. On many occasions, because of Debbie’s commitment to serving the underserved, I was able to refer patients to her program ensuring access to cancer treatment.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; an initiative to connect refugees to mental health services in Seattle; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and safe working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.; and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit