Grace: Omahan, honored by White House, forges ahead with north Omaha health mission -
Published Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:45 pm
Grace: Omahan, honored by White House, forges ahead with north Omaha health mission

His hair is white now.

The years Ira Combs has spent fighting for healthier north Omahans have passed in a blink.

The problems persist: higher rates of cancer, obesity, depression and asthma than just about anywhere else in the city. A 20 percent diabetes rate among blacks in Douglas County, more than twice the rate for whites.

Still, Combs soldiers on in the battle against bad health habits.

The 62-year-old takes his puppet — “Dr. Jesse” — and a prevention message to day cares. He talks colorectal cancer to men in church pews. He hands out condoms, checks blood pressure and shows teenagers what a career in medicine looks like.

He is newly encouraged by a White House award that recognized him and seven other Americans working in the same trenches.

The award reinforces what he has learned: Despite the problems that remain, he knows he can make a difference on a personal level.

Like he did for the man with high blood pressure, who saw his doctor after talking with Combs.

Or how he helped the teenager with one foot in gangland and the other in academics. That teenager won a summer internship with Combs and is now in community college.

Ira Combs is fired up.

But this is not how Combs was feeling in August. He was not feeling encouraged or committed.

Combs, who works at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was feeling tired. Everything felt like such a battle. He had to scrimp to get flu shots for 200 people. He had to start figuring out a way to raise $20,000 for a summer teen internship program that lost its funding because of UNMC budget cuts.

And he worried about the Lighthouse, a drop-in center at 5404 Ames Ave. with a homey touch, which needs money to stay open.

It also didn't help that Combs and his family had health problems of their own. He's on dialysis for end-stage renal disease, and his youngest child, a 21-year-old daughter, is in and out of the hospital.

Combs started thinking about retirement.

Then came the email from the White House.

Spam, thought Combs. He hit delete.

Then came the phone call.

“I thought it was the Lighthouse,” Combs said.

The caller explained she was from the White House, that Combs was one of 24 finalists out of 900 nominees for an award and that she needed his Social Security number to complete the process. The skeptical Combs thought that all sounded fishy.

He almost hung up.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

But he didn't. And on Sept. 10, Combs found himself sitting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, being named a “Champion of Change.”

This is the honor the Obama administration bestows upon ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things in venues from science to social services. There are “champions” who bring technology to minority communities and “champions” who work with children of prison inmates.

Combs was among eight “champions” working on prevention and public health.

Combs has spent the past 40 years caring for others: as a chaplain, a religion teacher, a paramedic, a nurse and the head of a group home for foster children.

But he was being honored because of his work as a community liaison nurse coordinator for UNMC's Center for Reducing Health Disparities. He was there because of his own initiatives — Youth Expression of Health, a program for teenagers, and North Omaha Area Health, which publishes a newsletter and runs health programs.

The Washington visit boosted his spirits.

The recognition helped him see possibilities in the Lighthouse Wellness and Community Center, where Combs runs a twice-a-week clinic. He renewed his commitment to keeping alive the summer teen internship program.

On Friday, UNMC held a party in his honor, with bosses singing his praises.

Dr. Renaisa Anthony, deputy director of the health disparities center, told Combs the award was “very well-deserved.”

Dr. Dejun Su, the center's director, told Combs the award was “a huge testimony to the years of service.”

The Mayor's Office sent its rep to proclaim “Ira Combs Day.”

Combs didn't dwell on the accolades for long.

On Saturday, he was talking to 40 men about health at a church in northeast Omaha. On Sunday, he was at his daughter's hospital bedside.

He was shuttling between meetings Monday at the med center and the UNMC clinic at 50th Street and Ames Avenue.

“I just want to see the culture of health,” he said, “change in north Omaha.”

What about retirement? What about feeling tired?

Combs said he hopes the White House recognition bolsters support for the Lighthouse and for his teen internship program.

He said there's a lot more prevention work to do.

“I just want to be what Mahatma Gandhi says,” he said. “Be the change you want to see.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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