Singer Davina Sowers on the Blues, Gratitude, and Recovery From Addiction


Davina Sowers

Davina Sowers is the powerhouse voice and piano behind the Minneapolis blues band “Davina and the Vagabonds.” She’s been compared to Etta James, Bonnie Raitt and Billie Holiday. Davina has a personal story that helps explain how her big-hearted blues were formed. As part of our pilot audio segment “What It’s Like Now,” we recently spoke with her about her music and her experience of recovery from heroin addiction.

I didn’t really start my career until I got clean…when I got clean, it gave me the opportunity to really heal through the music and start this band.


“Davina and the Vagabonds” is one of the featured bands at HazelFest on August 2 in Center City, MN. Healthy States and 89.3 The Current are media sponsors of this outdoor community festival celebrating recovery. Details and tickets here.

A Big Boost For Psychiatric Research


Life Mental Health / Creative Commons via Flickr

The largest analysis to date on schizophrenia was published in Nature this week. It revealed that there are a lot more genetic characteristics linked to the mental disorder than previously known. 83 new genetic markers at risk, to be exact, that involve chemical messages to the brain and the body’s immune system. The research is being hailed as a significant step forward in understanding schizophrenia’s genetic basis and potentially opening up new avenues for new treatment options. The research publication was timed to coincide with the announcement of a $650 million donation by a US family foundation to expand research into psychiatric conditions. The donation is one of the largest private gifts ever made for scientific research, and it comes at a time “when basic research into mental illness is sputtering, and many drug makers have all but abandoned the search for new treatments.” This week’s “Science Times” podcast offers quick and helpful context on these developments in a nine minute interview with science writer Carl Zimmer.

Must Read: John Katz on Recovery, Illness, and Being A Man

Many of us are familiar with John Katz, a writer and journalist whose work on technology and hi-tech culture has appeared regularly in Slate, Slashdot, and HotWired. Katz also writes on his own blog, Bedlam Farm, about dogs and plants, and the observations of someone interested in tending closely to the unremarkable rhythms of daily life.

In recent days, his journal entries focus on his brush with death, a recent heart surgery, and his reflections on what it means to be a man who is rendered weak by illness. Katz’s plain-spoken entries are transparent with fatigue, relief, gratitude, pain and worry.

From a recent post:

I have been home from the surgery since July 4. Today, my fitbitflex notified me that I have walked 50 miles in that time. But I hadn’t yet tackled Macmillan Road. Maria wouldn’t let me, and I was afraid that I might not make it, that I might still feel that sensation of gasping for air, or that pressure on my upper chest, gasping for air that never came. I was afraid to feel that again. The doctors have told me to walk only on flat ground for short distances, not to strain my heart. So I’ve been walking on flat roads, one or two miles at at a time. But I have been thinking Macmillan Road every single day, before surgery, after surgery, every morning when I wake up. I was haunted by that road. Maria kept saying no, it’s too soon. I was dreaming about it.

This morning, when I suggested Macmillan Road, as I have every morning, Maria surprised me by nodding and saying  “sure.” I took a deep breath and was startled at how deeply I could breathe. Before today, it was too painful. I walked in smooth and easy steps right up to the top of that hill and road and right over it, I breathed even and deeply, it was sweet and sound, and I sailed happily and proudly right past the spot where I had to stop three weeks ago and on over the hill, farther than we had ever gone. I told my doctor about Macmillian Road, and he said I was just a walk or two away from dropping dead or suffering a heart attack.

The good news, he said, is that you are alive…

Katz’s entries treat the healing power of dogs, complications of surgery and diabetes, and the very slow path toward health after a medical catastrophe. We don’t get a much clearer view than this of the human experience of illness and recovery.

CDC Closes Labs


r. nial bradshaw / Creative Commons via Flickr

In what could be mistaken as a plot line for an upcoming Michael Crichton thriller, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some of its laboratories will be closed after acknowledging the mishandling of certain pathogens including anthrax and the H5N1 bird flu strain. In addition, the agency also very recently announced it had discovered live smallpox virus in an unused storage room at the National Institutes of Health. Smallpox has been considered eradicated since 1980. CDC Director Tom Frieden said the mistakes should never have happened and called the incidents a wake up call.

Health Officials: Data Lacking on LGBTQ Issues

A groundbreaking report on health disparities in Minnesota released to the state legislature earlier this year did not include data on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health. Officials say that’s because there is little data on sexual minorities. But as MPR News’ Lorna Benson reports, in collaboration with Healthy States, there is evidence that LGBTQ and nonconforming people suffer serious lifelong health problems related to bullying, harassment, and discrimination. The National Transgender Discrimination Study, released earlier this year, for example, reports that up to 41 percent of transgender individuals have made a serious suicide attempt.

Benson’s story profiles Aurora Adams, a young transgender woman who shares her struggles with depression and self-injury as she claims her gender identity.

Aurora Adams image

Aurora Adams talks with her therapist Janet Bystrom at Reclaim in Minneapolis. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Twin Cities’ Asthma Neighborhoods

Asthma photo

Each morning before school, second-grader Maylena Carter takes her asthma medication while school nurse Dr. Betsy Garcia watches at Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Turns out the prevalence of asthma in the Twin Cities metropolitan area is linked to zip code. Although asthma is experienced by children of all races, prevalence is higher among African-American and American Indian kids in certain neighborhoods. In the second report in a series produced by Healthy States and MPR News, Lorna Benson reports on how data is driving public health solutions to health disparities associated with income, geography, and race.

Health officials say asthma spikes in neighborhoods along the Interstate 94 corridor in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Those neighborhoods represent lower incomes, where cheap rental housing may contribute to conditions that cause asthma. Access to health education and ongoing health care also plays a factor.


In the Minnesota Student Survey, students are asked to choose one or more racial/ethnic categories to indicate how they describe themselves. In this graph each racial/ethnic category includes all students checking that category; thus, responses for a student could be included in more than one category. Minnesota Student Survey, 2010

MN Data: Native Americans at Highest Risk of Cancer

The state of Minnesota collects a vast amount of data about the health of its citizens. These include mortality rates from various causes, rates of communicable disease, and rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes.

Those data informed a groundbreaking report by the Minnesota Department of Health earlier this year on the worsening disparities in health and health care access between Minnesota’s majority white population and people of color.

But how can such data provide answers to difficult public health problems? And what are the limits of data even when health officials are studying the numbers?

Healthy States has collaborated with MPR News on a series of reports addressing these questions, and in the first report, explores the incidence of cancer among Native Americans in Minnesota, and efforts that are underway to address it. Listen to the audio or read it with more images here.


Head dancer Patty Sam, left in purple shawl, and Denise Lindquist, right in pink shawl, both cancer survivors, greet those attending the American Indian Cancer Foundation’s Powwow for Hope in Minneapolis. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

CDC: Alcohol Abuse is 4th Leading Cause of Preventable Death

Binge Drinking Illustration

“Binge Drinking Illustration”
Penn State / Creative Commons via Flickr

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that alcohol abuse is a leading cause of preventable death among American adults. A recent report shows that abuse of alcohol accounts for one in ten deaths among working-aged people in the U.S., making it the fourth leading cause. The authors define abuse as binge drinking five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more drinks for women, and heavy weekly consumption of more than 15 drinks a week for men and eight drinks a week for women. Drinking while pregnant and drinking by under-age minors are also considered abuse. The report says binge drinking accounts for over half the mortality related to alcohol.

Meantime, in case you missed it, National Geographic offers this look at new science on why some young people become binge drinkers and others don’t. In The New York Times, alternatives to the standard approach of 12-step recovery are profiled. And in The Atlantic, a young woman encounters a high school friends’ descent into addiction and death through revelatory Facebook messages.

Will Capitalism Save Health Care?

New ideas for harnessing the profit motive in service to the transformation of American health care were center stage at last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival health sessions. Among the disruptors and innovators present were Jonathan Bush, president of athenahealth and author of “Where Does It Hurt?” and Rushika Fernandopulle, founder of Iora Health, an advocate of patient-centered care. But first, James Hamblin reports, the broken American health care system has to break further. Here’s video of the session he moderated on “Bringing A Business Lens to Healthcare.”

Profiles in Health: Dr. Alan Johns

by Jennifer Vogel

Thinking back to when his daughter, Betsy, was hospitalized for the leukemia that would quickly steal her life, two people stand out in Dr. Alan Johns’ memory. One is the third-year medical student who talked to Betsy a lot, explaining things in a way she could understand, and the other is the janitor who mopped her floor every day. “He always had a really positive attitude,” Johns said. “He always had a smile on his face and was always visiting with her. You could depend on him.”

“Of all the people who saw her,” said Johns, an internist with Essentia Health and the incoming interim dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus, “all the high-powered researchers and physicians and oncologists and hematologists, those two come to mind.” Each gave Betsy, just 19 at the time, someone to trust and even laugh with. “Some people would say he’s not doing anything,” Johns said of the student, ignoring a large latte in a noisy campus coffee shop. “He’s just talking to her. But I would submit that he was doing really a lot for her care just by being human.”

Dr. Alan Johns

“It’s the human aspect of medicine I try to relay to my students…I tell them, don’t think that you are ever not doing something. You can help someone without writing a bunch of orders…”
Derek Montgomery / For Healthy States

It’s that personal connection—between doctor and patient, student and teacher, even janitor and patient—that Johns considers essential to good health care. And he worries that as family medicine takes a backseat to specialties like cardiology and orthopedics, which are more lucrative, patients lose out. “It’s the human aspect of medicine I try to relay to my students,” said Johns, one of the first Native American students to attend medical school in Duluth, where he now teaches and oversees curriculum. On July 1 Johns becomes interim dean of the medical campus, after the current dean steps down.

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