At 16, Tyree Winters, DO, believed that the diagnosis he’d just been given was a death sentence. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna die young,’ ” he says.
His doctor had just told him that he had diabetes, a disease that his father and grandparents suffered from, and a condition that Dr. Winters wanted no part of. He’d graduated from high school early, and was already in college.
“It was a turning point in my life,” Dr. Winters says. But he was a smart kid. Smart enough, he thought, to beat diabetes.
And so he did.
His family supported him, helping him to find the path to better health. Special dishes were prepared just for him. He adopted a more active lifestyle and made wiser nutritional choices.
Then when he became an adult, Dr. Winters decided on medicine as a career and the osteopathic profession as his pathway there. Helping young people struggling with diabetes and weight issues would be his mission.
Overweight children are often subjected to labels and stereotypes that isolate and define them, he says. “So you cannot treat the condition without treating the child.”
“Obesity is one of the most personalized diagnoses because it affects your self-esteem, personal identity and physical identity. But there’s so much more to the person than that.”
“I was a child who was obese and I remember how difficult that was. I understand the social struggles.”
Dr. Winters knew that the process of creating a positive self-image for his young patients, marked by confidence and a healthier lifestyle, would need to include increased physical activity. But this important step was challenging.
“Some patients couldn’t afford the YMCA or Boys and Girls Clubs,” Dr. Winter says. “A lot were living in apartments or didn’t have a yard. So there was really no place for them to do a physical activity.”
In 2013, Dr. Winters came up with a solution. He’d recently participated in a hip-hop fitness class and was inspired by the energy and music. As a member of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, he was known for his mastery of step.
He decided on a hands-on approach. If inactivity was part of the problem, then movement would be the solution, as in hip-hop dance movement. And he would offer it live from his office at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he had been lead clinician for four years.
“I decided I wanted to do a dance class for kids. So we moved the chairs out of the way in the waiting room and we started with current music and dances that were not difficult so kids could catch on.” That first class lasted about an hour, he recalls. “We had about 15 kids, six or seven parents, a few siblings and all of our staff.”
The class was amazing, Dr. Winters says, because his patients saw him as both doctor and dance instructor.
“They could relate to me, so it made their own progress seem more possible. You see your doctor in front of you, not only telling you to move, but moving with you,” Dr. Winters says. “And if you cannot move a lot, it’s OK. Just move your feet.”
The success of the Hip-Hop Doc spread quickly and soon the YMCA asked him to teach a class there. Through that partnership, Dr. Winters was able to refer his pediatric patients to the center, giving them access to all the amenities of the Y, including his dance class.
“Part of weight management is not focusing on weight, because it’s not the best way to counsel patients. Our goals are not to promote weight loss, but to promote healthier lifestyles.”
Passing the torch
When Dr. Winters left Ohio in 2015 for Newark, New Jersey, one of his 16-year-old patient-students took over as instructor for his dance class. It is evidence, he says, that leading by example makes all the difference. He is confident that from the next group of students, more leaders will emerge.
Now, in between his current patient workload at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, where he is the associate program director for the pediatric residency and medical director of the Health Start clinic, Dr. Winters makes time to speak at high schools where he demonstrates his hip-hop methodology. He most certainly has plans to revamp his hip-hop class, he says, and step back into his dual-career role as doctor and dance instructor.
“It’s one thing to talk the talk. It’s another thing to walk the walk,” Dr. Winters says. “My osteopathic training taught me to embrace the whole person. It was my training that led me to use the tools that I had to help the patient. That’s the key.”
For further reading