By Aisling Maki
Legendary recording artist Patti LaBelle was in Memphis Thursday, Dec. 8, to help kick off Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp.'s yearlong centennial celebration with a fundraiser for its new comprehensive cancer care center.
More than 280 people packed the new 20,000-square-foot Dr. H. Edward Garrett Auditorium at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, 6027 Walnut Grove Road, to hear LaBelle speak candidly about her battle with diabetes, a disease that took her mother's life.
"I've been diabetic for a long time, maybe 14 years," LaBelle, 67, said at a news conference just before Thursday's event. "I'm living with diabetes."
Her music career has spanned more than four decades and has included hits such as "Lady Marmalade," "On My Own" and "New Attitude," but life on the road didn't always inspire healthy eating habits.
"I used to fry the whole chicken," LaBelle said.
LaBelle stressed the importance of healthful eating for the prevention and control of diabetes, a disease that's become a serious public health issue in the Memphis area, where Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation has spent more than $1 million in community outreach centered on diabetes education.
"You don't have to break the bank to live healthy," she said. "Please go to a doctor, someone who can help you. I found out I was diabetic because I thought something else was wrong with me, and he came back and said, 'Did you know you were diabetic?'"
LaBelle has published a cookbook called "Recipes for the Good Life," based on her experiences teaching herself how to cook healthier versions of her favorite dishes.
Stephen Meek, executive chef at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, prepared foods for the audience Thursday using recipes from LaBelle's cookbook.
LaBelle said she likes to "freestyle" in the kitchen, finding new ways to whip up tasteful meals low in fats and sugars.
"I have to do this so that I can be around for a longer time," she said.
Scott Fountain, senior vice president and chief development officer for Baptist, said it's empowering for people living with diabetes to hear success stories from others living with the disease.
"The management of diabetes is very difficult, but for someone like Patti LaBelle to bring it home and make it realistic to people - that it's manageable and can happen to everybody - you can have a healthy and fulfilling life if you follow some basic steps that she's outlined," Fountain said.
LaBelle also spoke about her personal commitment to helping people who are battling cancer, a disease that took the lives of her siblings.
"I lost three sisters, before they turned 44, of different types of cancer," she said. "I do what I can."
LaBelle was the first speaker in a series celebrating Baptist Memorial Health Care's 100th anniversary.
"We're hosting several events throughout the year, writing a book and producing a documentary that chronicles our history, and planning many other activities to honor this important milestone," said Stephen C. Reynolds, Baptist Memorial Health Care president and CEO.
Baptist Memorial Health Care was founded in 1912 as a 150-bed hospital in Downtown Memphis, established by the Southern Baptist Conventions of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas after they recognized a tremendous need for a health care facility in the Mid-South.
Today, Baptist Memorial Health Care has 14 affiliate hospitals and is among the nation's top 15 integrated health care systems.