Community Impact: Making Health a Priority

Dr. Willa Doswell, PhD, RN, FAAN, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, always had an interest in healthcare, thanks to a family of healthcare providers. Because of racial discrimination at the time, her mother, originally from Pittsburgh, couldn’t get into the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, but went to NYC’s Harlem Hospital to become a nurse, eventually earning her master’s degree.

Doswell’s father was a physician who attended Loma Linda University in California. She followed in his footsteps, graduating with a BSN in 1968.

It was her time at New York University, studying underneath Dean Martha Rogers, that solidified her career choice as a nurse researcher; going on to earn her master’s in nursing in 1975 and a PhD in 1982.

She said the journey, although met with struggles along the way, has been exciting.

“It’s taken me around the world and led to training many African American nurses into graduate education in nursing,” she said. “I’ve also had the chance to have more than 100 high school students participate as research interns.”

Doswell said making health a priority has always been an interest of hers.

“I belong to the Ethan Temple Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Wilkinsburg, where I’ve been a Parish Nurse for many years,” she said. “In parish nursing I got to learn about people in the church who weren’t taking care of themselves.”

Doswell said she wanted to see that change, and the way to do so was to go out into the community.

“Health promotion is what our interest is,” she said. “I want to prevent people from getting sick.”

Through her church and as a member of the Internal Advisory Council for Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers, Doswell has helped put healthy habits at the forefront of people’s minds in underserved communities in Pittsburgh. From food drives, to clothing drives, to health fairs. Doswell even started a project that hands out pet food to people struggling to take care of their pets.

“Monthly I provide one week of cat and dog meals for the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry,” she said. “Each bag contains two meals a day for five days a week, along with a toy and information on how to take care of their pets.”

In the summer of 2021, together with the School of Nursing and the Ethan Temple, Doswell collaborated with the church’s Women’s Ministry Committee to organize a baby shower for 25 soon-to-be mothers.

“With help from faculty, undergraduate nursing students and summer intern high school students, we put together bags of supplies for new moms,” she said. “We gave them a book on how to raise their child for the first year. The shower was open to pregnant women in Wilkinsburg, Homewood, East Liberty and other neighboring communities. We follow them and ask to be notified when each baby is born.”

Much of her community outreach happens through the Homewood Community Engagement Center (CEC), Hill District CEC and the Hazelwood CEC. She mobilizes other SON faculty for participation in health fairs in these communities. School of Nursing students volunteer to give health talks, help distribute health literature packets, take vital signs, and give out health supplies like toothbrushes and nail brushes, while providing vital information to these underserved communities.

“We’ve had Betty Braxter, PhD, CNM, RN, FAAN, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, talk to community residents about ‘Stop the Bleed,’” she said. “Margaret Rosenzweig PhD, CRNP-C, AOCNP, FAAN, Distinguished Service Professor of Nursing, gave information about breast exams because a lot of African American women are hesitant about wanting to know whether they have cancer or not,” she said.

Doswell’s work in these communities helped her be named a 2019 Woman of Excellence by the New Pittsburgh Courier – an award given annually to 50 African American women who have made significant contributions to the community. “Dr. Virginia Allison was a School Nurse before she became a faculty member at the School of Nursing and has been very helpful in how we teach kids to wash their hands,” she said. “She has a very unique way of doing that and we’ve gone out with her and learned how she does it. It’s nice to have faculty want to be involved.”

Research on health promotion among African American girls is also a big priority. Her current projects involve menstruation reproductive health in African American teen girls and measuring self-advocacy skills among pregnant African American women. Doswell said the support she’s received through her projects and work in the community has been vital but has also been met with challenges. She said it’s tough getting the status quo researchers to allow research in new areas, and although facing challenges, she’s happy with the work she’s doing in the community in making health a priority.