I dont want to bore you, Torrance Stephens began,
although the possibilities of that happening are quite slim considering
the quality of his subject matter and the energetic way in which
he discusses it. But I could take the top 10 causes of death
over the last 15 to 20 years, and youd see African American
men at the top of probably all the categories, said Stephens,
research assistant professor of behavioral sciences and health education
in the Rollins School of Public Health.
Prostate cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other
diseases afflict black men at rates disproportional to those of
the remainder of the U.S. population.
Stephens primary research interest is African American mens
health, and through his work he has sought ways to improve their
quality of life.
Until we start to focus on this population, Stephens
said, were going to continue to see such problematic
rates in all acute and chronic infections, as well as other problematic
health outcomes, such as violence, and HIV and AIDS.
Two of the primary means to improve African American mens
healtheveryones health, for that matterare education
and communication. Its not as easy as it appears, either,
with a health care system than is becoming increasingly bureaucratic.
The days of the professional doctor inculcating information
into the passive patient are over, Stephens said. Nowadays,
although we have all these hospitals and advances in technology,
we still have people going to doctors and hospitals late, at the
very end of a problem.
Once theyre in, they are rushed through an assembly
line: Go to this window here to pay your money. This window to check
your insurance card. This window to have your vitals taken. A lot
of peopleparticularly those in minority communitiesare
turned off by that. I think we need to make sure that we empower
individuals to be proactive about their own health care and their
own health behavior.
Recently, Stephens research has veered toward a specific
population of menthose who are in prison. In many ways, these
men are the most vulnerable to disease. They rarely practice proper
health habits, Stephens said, not necessarily because they dont
care, but they just have never learned how to properly protect themselves.
Not only has Stephens studied men in American prisons, but he also
has taken his research abroad.
In June, Stephens along with Ronald Braithwaite, a professor in
the Rollins school, and several peer educators, will travel to Kwazulu
Natal, a rural area in eastern South Africa, to begin a program
in that countrys prisons to provide inmates with basic health
care skills in order to help reduce their risk of infectious disease.
It is modeled after a study Braithwaite and Stephens performed in
One reason it is important to work with prison populations,
not only overseas but here, is because nine times out of 10 these
individuals will be reintegrated into the community, Stephens
said. So its very important that we give these individuals
the capacity to reduce the likelihood of spreading infectious diseases
among their communities.
And some of the diseases Stephens will be dealing with are quite
frightening. The number of South Africans infected with HIV/AIDS,
for instance, has reached pandemic proportions. The infection rate
in the prison population, of course, is difficult to determine,
but the chances that it is higher than the general populace are
good. Not only must health care professionals deal with HIV, but
also tuberculosis, hepatitis and several diseases rarely seen in
the U.S. but deadly in Africa, like malaria, beriberi and cholera.
One of the most important aspects of this effort is the peer educatorsformer
prisoners who are HIV-positive. Part of the studys point is
to determine whether the message to prisoners about practicing better
health care is more successfully delivered by an HIV-positive former
inmate, a regular inmate or a traditional health educator.
Stephens is still interpreting data from his previous work, but
he said that among the prisoners he has educated though various
programs, the rates with which they have returned to prison have
fallen as well as IV drug use, needle sharing and sexual contact
among prisoners has dropped.
This will be the third consecutive summer Stephens has traveled
to South Africa. In all, hes been to the continent nine times.
The first was in 1992 when he spent 13 months in Nigeria doing postdoctoral
work leading a child survival and maternal health care project.
I really love Nigeria, Stephens said. There was
a genuine appreciation for trying to implement health care services
in rural areas by the Nigerian population. It showed me that we
dont always have to go over there with a know-it-all
attitude. People can solve their own problems.
Since joining the Emory faculty in 1997, Stephens has written or
cowritten nearly 40 articles, chapters or book reviews. He most
certainly is interested in his work, but he writes for another reasonhe
likes it. And he writes much more than just academically tinged
Maybe one day Ill find a publisher for the all the
books Ive already completed, he said. Sixteen books
of verse, novels and short stories, he estimated. Some of them are
at home; others he keeps in the office.
Its what I do to keep sane, he said.
The writing bug bit Stephens while he was an undergraduate at Morehouse
College in the mid-1980s. One of his roommates told him that Spelman
College was sponsoring a playwriting contest and was offering $500
to the winner. The only thing was that the play had to be submitted
in two weeks.
Six days later, Stephens cranked out a play. He turned it in and
took second place.
I have dreams of being the greatest literary figure of all
time, Stephens laughed. Delusions of grandeur, of course.
Writing and raising his 9-year-old son, Thabiti, keeps Stephens,
a single father, busy outside the classroom. Like many fathers,
Stephens has coached his sons teams in basketball and baseballsomething
hes done for five years.
Of the two sports, baseball is his favorite because of the lessons
the children can learn.
The reason I like coaching, particularly baseball, is you
have to learn to work with other people, Stephens said. I
think baseball is the best teacher of that. You cant play
every position and you cant bat every time. And, if you lose,
there is a tomorrow.