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A healthier Buffalo is her mission

Shortly after Melva D. Visher graduated from Bishop Colton High Schoolin the early '70s, she began to blanket Main Street with job applications. One of them landed her a position as a nurse's aide at Buffalo General Hospital, and she never looked back.

Today as vice president of community health for Kaleida Health, Visher spends much of her time educating the people of our community about public health care. She also teaches Health Systems Management at Daemen College and Health Information Technology at Erie Community College. At age 56, Visher will this year celebrate 40 years of marriage. Her motto in life? "Be prepared."

>People Talk: What do you attribute your success to?

Melva Visher: Certainly my education, but I didn't aspire to college or anything like that. I mean I'm a girl from the East Side of Buffalo. I went to school here through all my years but nobody ever said: "Go to college and be a nurse or teacher." My father worked for years at Republic Steel. College was never on my radar but I got into an environment where education wasn't only encouraged, it was almost expected. The health care environment is constantly changing.

>PT: Didn't you study to be a nurse?

MV: No. Right after high school I started as a nurse's aide at Buffalo General. They trained me on the job, and I was there for eight months. I absolutely hated it. I was the world's worst, but I loved the environment. Emotionally I had a tough time working with patients when they were so desperately ill, particularly patients who were dying. I resigned.

>PT: You quit?

MV: Yes, but a few days later I got a call from the supervisor asking me to come back as a unit secretary, the mover and the shaker of the unit. Everything starts and ends at that desk. I was in nirvana. I had the job I wanted, and I stayed in it seven years. I aspired to other roles, but I needed college, so I started at ECC and then found out about Empire College.

>PT: Is Buffalo a healthy community?

MV: Hands down no. We don't understand what a healthy community would look like. We don't have the infrastructure, like safe areas for people to walk. Walking clubs -- generally speaking -- get in their car and drive to a park. The sidewalks aren't safe. Our seniors in living centers have indicated they are afraid to walk. They're not afraid of the folks in their neighborhood; they're afraid of falling.

>PT: What are some of the chronic diseases you see?

NV: In children it's asthma, diabetes, obesity. Obesity is an illness. In adults, it's diabetes, heart disease -- diseases that people will have for the rest of their lives. We don't live healthy here. We embrace behaviors and lifestyle choices that are just not healthy, partly because it's become our norm. So there's a lot of education that needs to happen.

>PT: When it comes to nutrition, where do schools fall short?

MV: Given their challenges, the Buffalo schools have done pretty well. Kaleida has been working with them for 15 years. Our community health dietitian works directly with the schools on vending machine policy, the food that's offered in them. As a result, vending machines were removed from elementary schools. In high schools, they were relocated to places where students didn't have ready access. More than 50 percent of the foodstuff was replaced with healthy options like water and juices.

>PT: When did breakfast become part of the school day?

MV: I don't know, but I find it fascinating that it's across the board. It's part of the free and reduced-price school lunch program at almost every school in Buffalo. Basically the kids get off the bus and the first thing they do is have breakfast. It's a reflection of the Buffalo community in terms of the poverty levels of our families. I'm not making excuses. That's been the reality.

>PT: Career aside, what else do you do?

MV: I spend most of my time in work or work-related activities. I have a 38-year-old son who lives in Albany.

>PT: What's your favorite thing to do in Buffalo?

MV: I love musical theater. I saw "Dream Girls" for the sixth time. I saw "Phantom [of the Opera]" 12 times. I like that type of entertainment.

>PT: Do you garden?

MV: No. No. No. And I don't cook much anymore. I have a husband who is retired; I'm not cooking. I used to think I wanted to be a caterer. Then I thought I wanted to be a hairstylist. And then I figured out what I really wanted to be was an entrepreneur. I liked the business side. I like variety.

>PT: How do you let your hair down?

MV: What really relaxes me is a great novel, and I don't mean one of those whiz bang fancy electronic Kindles. I want a good solid book with a nice binding that I can hold in my hands. I love reading, and I love reading what I call brain candy, which means things I don't have to think about.

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