Marilyn Laken: The nurse still challenging the status quo

“We did the first live breast exam—ever—on TV. It had to be cleared out of New York before they allowed us to do it.”
 
That was in 1976, when Marilyn Laken was filming “Inner Woman,” her local TV health program for ABC.
 
Last December, Laken retired from a 52-year career in nursing and health care. Twenty-five of those years were at the Wayne State School of Medicine, where, to her knowledge, she became the first nurse to be hired as a faculty member at a U.S. medical school in 1972.
 
Laken says studying biological anthropology fit into her nursing background because it helped explain why low-income and minority women weren’t receiving prenatal care.
 
She became involved with Michigan’s Bureau of Child and Maternal Health and the Detroit Health Department, and testified as an expert witness for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Children, Youth and Families in 1989 in Washington D.C., and in 1990 in Detroit to make prenatal health care a right and Medicaid applications less exhaustive. 
 
Laken says it was fulfilling conducting research and publishing not just to do it, but to make a difference.
 
“That’s the highlight of my career,” she says. “To make a difference through policy, to make health care more accessible to people who need it and to have it delivered in a way that makes sense to them.”
 
Laken also chose to pursue a PhD in anthropology at WSU to better understand the medical school culture and eventually to help change it.
 
“It was a very sexist atmosphere,” she says. “Most of the OB/GYN physicians at that time were men—in fact, most of them were white males.”
 
“Once I became an anthropologist, I would tease them about their language, [and] wrote letters to the OB/GYN societies,” she says. “I became quite outspoken, but I did all of it with a sense of humor, not with anger or rancor, as a lot of other women were doing. That got a point across.”
 
On one occasion, however, she challenged one male lecturer from the University of Mississippi who used a slide of a Playboy Magazine centerfold model in his presentation on the latest research in breast cancer. Laken, who had seen this slide in a previous presentation, stood up in the middle of the lecture, shouted, “That’s not funny,” and sat down. The place went silent. The chair of the department looked up at Laken, who was still glaring at the lecturer, and said, “She’s right. That’s not funny. Let’s destroy that slide.”
 
The women in attendance thanked her afterwards, telling her the slide bothered them for years, but refused to speak out because they felt they didn’t belong.
 
During her time at WSU, Laken also shattered the barrier of only males researching male health, like sperm count research.
 
“It took some teasing in the department about men’s stuff and women’s stuff and who could study what before I finally got them to support the first prospective study of sperm count and I published it in OB/GYN and urology journals as the first author, and I became a world-famous urologist.”
 
Attitudes in medical schools across the country eventually began to change, and more women physicians began going into OB/GYN.
 
After retiring from the Medical University of South Carolina last December as the former associate dean for research, program director and professor, Laken is beginning yet another career. Now, she plans to protect the earth and save the environment. She’s moving to the Villages at Crest Mountain, a sustainable eco-community in Asheville, North Carolina, where she’s designed her own eco-friendly house.
 
“My whole new career still involves health, still involves anthropology and culture,” Laken says. “In this place we’re all bringing our own baggage with us, but out of it we’re going to be developing a new culture—essentially how do we care for each other and our environment.”
 
All the homes built in the Villages at Crest Mountain are individually designed and energy efficient at the silver level. They have metal roofs, which collect rainwater, and use drip irrigation to water crops. There’s no grass in the community, because its residents see it as a waste of water, money and chemicals. The homes also all have front and back porches to encourage mixing and mingling among neighbors.
 
“I’m very interested in sustainable communities, it’s all organized around community gardens and I’m very interested in growing vegetables and they’re interested in raising chickens, too, which I’d love to learn how to do,” Laken says.
 
Laken says she’s looking forward to moving into the community, which is about 75 percent unoccupied, because she’s arriving early enough to offer her life experience.
 
“My whole new career still involves health, still involves anthropology and culture,” Laken says. “In this place we’re all bringing our own baggage with us, but out of it we’re going to be developing a new culture—essentially how do we care for each other and our environment.”
 
Before the house is finished, Laken plans on renting a wheelchair and working with her building to the make house entirely accessible when the time comes, because, as she says, “I don’t want to end up in a nursing home.”
 
Dr. Laken created one of the first courses in Alternative Complementary Medicine while at Wayne State University and teaches in the doctoral nursing program and in the Department of Biometry and Epidemiology at MUSC. She has served on many review boards and taskforces related to improving access to health care, establishing standards of care, and research.  Her experience on peer-review study sections includes NIH, NSF, HRSA, DHHS, HCFA, CDC, and several private foundations.  She served at co-chair of the Perinatal and Patient Safety Collaborative for Bureau of Primary Health Care.  She has served as Principle Investigator on 26 grants totaling over $10 million.  Currently she heads the HRSA-funded school-based clinic program and a Duke Endowment project to increase physical activity in elementary schools in nine school districts in South Carolina.  She serves as co-PI on an NIH-funded study to reduce obesity among members of the AME Church, and a P-60 program grant to partner with South Carolina State University to reduce metabolic syndrome.  She has over 50 peer-reviewed publications, 17 chapters and one book.
 
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Marilyn Laken: The nurse still challenging the status quo 4/13/2017
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