Dr. Lisa Merritt’s dedicated to helping others, especially her daughter

Dr Lisa Merritt and her daughter Amara Photo by Barbara Banks Photography

Dr. Lisa Merritt and her daughter Amara (Photo by Barbara Banks Photography; used with permission.)

“It’s all about the kids, and who’s there to speak for them,” Lisa says.

This one woman band is tireless in pursuing better medical care for others, especially among minorities. We met when she received a “Women in Power” award from the NCJW, Sarasota. Her acceptance was so eloquent I decided we (you, dear reader, and I) needed to know her.

After graduating from Georgetown U. and Howard med school, Lisa trained in family and physical medicine and rehab. Working in California as a catastrophic care consultant for an insurance company, she was driving to Monterey to investigate a case. She was lamenting the difficulty many people of color and ethnic backgrounds have navigating the medical system. “I was struck with a clear thought—to start a multicultural health organization. It was like God was talking to me. But how?”

She figured out the how, served on a stateside minority health task force, and opened a clinic. It grew to 2500 sf, staffed by doctors, psychologists, rehab specialists, etc. She served on the staff of 3 hospitals, taught at U.C. Davis and started the Multicultural Health Institute. Over the last 20 years, MHI has helped thousands with health care and won many awards.

After 10 years in California, Lisa moved to Atlanta. In what would become a pattern, she uprooted her life to help a family member. Her beloved Aunt Gloria was battling (and subsequently lost) her fight with lung cancer. In Atlanta for 6 years, Lisa also worked on projects and won a national award for her research on cardiovascular disease and diabetes among African-Americans.

Multicultural Health Institute homepage

Click on the logo to learn more about Dr. Merritt’s institute.

When Lisa’s mother contracted cancer, Lisa moved again. This time to Sarasota, to help her parents. In Sarasota, she started a chapter of MHI, consulting on care coordination, wellness plans, HIV/AIDS awareness, etc. Among programs she developed: enlisting high school students to teach senior citizens to use their mobile devices to track their health care. She runs a support group for cancer survivors and care givers and has developed programs for non-English speaking people.

With its “Gatekeepers of Community Health,” MHI has held hundreds of wellness programs and mentored and inspired hundreds of students to seek STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) careers and has impacted health delivery in the region.

Lisa’s from a family of high achievers. “My parents were social activists,” she says. “Do something to help people was the operating formula.” Her mother, Eleanor Merritt Darlington, and her mom’s 2 sisters are “ridiculously brilliant.” Eleanor attended the La Guardia School for the Arts (as in the movie “Fame”), got her masters from Brooklyn College and chaired a high school art department. She recently had a 60-year retrospective of her paintings in Sarasota. Eleanor’s sister Gloria was a concert pianist who liked to complete the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle—in ink. Her brother, a physician, established gynecological programs in Jamaica and NC. Her father, an engineer, returned to school for a PhD in social work. Surrounded by such smart relatives, Lisa calls herself “the runt of the litter.”

Aside from assisting her mom with medical matters, Lisa helps her father with his heart problems. She jokes, “I tell my parents they got a big R.O.I. (return on investment) out of me.”

Lisa started out with “a great education in a teeny New York school with inkwells nailed to the desk.” She and classmate Debbie Ruben were assigned their week’s homework on Monday. “By Tuesday we’d be finished. We’d spend the rest of the week tutoring other kids and reading. I read everything in the library—classics, the encyclopedia.” She graduated a year early, having just turned 17.

At 5’8”, Lisa was also an athlete. She captained several teams and started a girls track team (just after Title 9 was enacted). At gymnastics camp, she trained 7-10 hours a day. She set records in high jump and sprinting and won the MVP award. In college, she placed 1st on the East Coast and 3rd in the country in the national collegiate Judo championships.

“Sports drove the focus and intensity of my life and taught me team building.” Injured in several car accidents, she now mostly swims, does yoga and walks. “And I dance madly around the house, embarrassing my daughter.”

As a child, Lisa spent time with her grandmother in Jamaica, “a kind and gentle soul who imprinted me with caring for others.” Her grandmother wrote in her 6th grade yearbook: “Have many friends. Trust few. Learn to paddle your own canoe.”

Lisa’s 17 year old daughter Amara was recently diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor—a rare form of childhood lung cancer. Ever the researcher, Lisa says Amara’s condition affects 1 in 2.8 million. Lisa’s raising her daughter alone. Her husband died from a heart attack at age 40. Lisa has pulled back on her clinical activities to focus on her daughter. “I’m using all my medical and investigative skills to keep her well and strong.”

Amara recently underwent a 7 hour surgery and could await more. She joined us at lunch, appearing robust and only a tad sad about having to miss yet another track meet.

Thanks, my new friend, for sharing your story. And for all you do for humanity. May you and Amara keep paddling.

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