Add to that the emotional toll of living in America at this time — having friends and fellow health-care workers die of the virus, seeing cellphone videos of Black people being killed by police.
Turnage said he began to feel the stress and pressure of everything in the spring. “And for the first time in my life, I experienced real depression,” he said.
Turnage is 62 and African American. Unseemly as it may be for the city’s top health expert to not be the model of health, he is determined to change that narrative and serve as a kind of inspiration to others. His life — and theirs — may depend upon it.
When the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the closure of his D.C. government office, Turnage began working from his home in Southwest Washington. Somehow that refrigerator door was always open in front of him.
“I was just going back and forth, grabbing things to eat without even paying attention,” he recalled. “The next thing I know, I look down and say, ‘Oh, my goodness. Where did those 30 pounds come from?’ My vital signs went crazy. My blood sugar was spiking way too high and I began having all of these side effects.”
He had to make a change. African Americans are disproportionately afflicted by diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — illnesses affected by what we eat.
Turnage was born in Richmond, the son of a sharecropper and a domestic worker. He was raised on soul food. “My mother was the best cook in the world,” he said. “One of my favorites is pork chops, rice and gravy.”
As a youngster, he wasn’t concerned about what or how much he ate. He was always on the run. He attended North Carolina A&T on a baseball scholarship. At Ohio State, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration, he played lots of pickup basketball games and other sports.
Returning to Virginia, he became an expert on health-care policy and served in the administrations of two governors — Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine.
“Ten-hour work days, six days a week, half a day on Sunday,” Turnage recalled. “I had just turned 50 and all of a sudden I’m spending my days in a chair. Eating fast foods.”
A newly elected D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray picked him to run the city’s health department and Turnage was kept on by Gray’s successor, Muriel E. Bowser.
Six weeks ago, he found himself eating more and more French toast for breakfast, less and less oatmeal. As part of an effort to reboot his health efforts and also do a public service, he enrolled in coronavirus vaccine trials being conducted at George Washington University.
Bowser was so impressed that she tapped Turnage to speak out on the need to have more African Americans participate in vaccine trials.
His efforts also come at a time when health-care advocates nationwide are pressing vaccine investigators for more diversity among participants.
I wasn’t sure why the race of participants mattered in a vaccine study. Race, by my way of thinking, is a biological fiction…
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