Alex Smith

Health Reporter

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. 

Alex began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. He became health reporter at KCUR in January 2014.
 

Ways to Connect

Nicolas Rohner

Bob Caviar has seen his share of heavy eaters.

He’s the owner of Papa Bob’s Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kansas, and the creator of a sandwich he’s christened “The Ultimate Destroyer.”

“This wasn’t designed as a challenge,” Caviar says. “It was really designed to feed families.”

But the football-sized sandwich, which contains four and a half pounds of meat, has turned out to be irresistible to eaters with something to prove.

Though many heed the call, the years have shown it takes a rare breed to conquer the Ultimate Destroyer.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

In early April, dozens of cyclists gathered in a midtown Kansas City grocery store parking lot for a crosstown trek in honor of a fallen friend and fellow rider.

Thirty-two-year-old Anthony Saluto had been killed a few days earlier when a driver heading in the opposite direction swerved into his lane and hit him. Many of the cyclists, including Peter Quick, were still shaken up.

“It’s like losing a family member,” Quick said. “Bicyclists in this town are a pretty tight-knit group. So when something happens to somebody you know, it hits home pretty fast.”

Alex Smith / KCUR

On Sunday mornings at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, prayers that are quietly murmured in most churches seem to almost rumble like thunder.

Thousands of congregants crowd the huge suburban auditorium for weekly services, which feature huge video monitors, an orchestra and a full choir. With 20,000 members, it’s the largest Methodist church in the United States.  

Amy Mogharbel, 30, says attending services here took some getting used to.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Kansas City Mayor Sly James said Tuesday that low public support has prompted the city to abandon plans to build a new airport.

James said the city would shift its priorities to other issues after polls last week showed just 39 percent of voters supporting a ballot question on issuing airport revenue bonds to construct a new terminal.

“Although I still feel that a new air terminal is inevitable, it's clear that the time is not now,” James said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

KCAVP

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congress voted in 2013 to require domestic abuse service providers who receive federal funds to offer help to people in same-sex relationships. But many advocates say LGBT people still have far fewer resources available to them than what’s traditionally been available for woman escaping violence from men. To help fill that gap, the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project opened a center earlier this year in Westport to provide support for LGBT people living in the Great Plains region. But the group’s executive director, Justin Shaw, tells KCUR’s Alex Smith that there’s still a lot of unwillingness – both inside and outside the community – to face up to the problem.

The fate of a tax to build a new Johnson County courthouse and coroner’s building will be determined by voters, following a vote by county leaders on Thursday.

The Johnson County Commission approved a November ballot measure that would increase the  sales tax by a quarter of a cent to fund construction of the buildings.

The tax would generate $201 million total, $182 million of which would fund the courthouse and $19 million the coroner’s building. The tax would sunset after 10 years. 

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

On a busy league night in a Raytown, Missouri, bowling alley, former auto worker Raymond Fowler keeps up his game playing alongside his wife and longtime teammates.

Fowler, who’s 67, stays busy in his retirement, but it’s not all fun and games. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and changed his diet and exercise routine, which now includes four bowling sessions a week.

His condition was severe enough that his doctor said he needed insulin shots, and that’s one change he’s found troubling.

Alex Smith / KCUR 89-three

Despite an intense week getting his bearings, Ahmad al-Abboud smiled and expressed his gratitude at a press event Monday morning in Kansas City. 

“God bless Kansas City!” he said through an interpreter.

The 45-year-old former construction worker, his wife and five children are the first Syrian family to be resettled in the United States as part of a refugee “surge operation.” They arrived last Wednesday evening.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

For Jim Nunnelly, being diagnosed with diabetes two-and-a-half years ago was a shock, but almost as shocking was the amount of health information he was suddenly expected to absorb.

“A person like me, getting up in years, got drowned in all that information. I didn’t know what to believe or what to act on,” Nunnelly says.

Information about medications, blood sugar levels, insulin, insurance and exercise – it all made his head spin. Not to mention everything he needed to learn about food shopping.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Over the past several months, teams of local health advocates have been making their way from one local city to another, lobbying city leaders to raise the legal age for the purchase of tobacco to 21.

Since its launch last October, Tobacco 21, a coalition made up of business, government and health groups, has run up a string of victories in some of the area’s largest cities, including Kansas City, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; and Olathe, Kansas.

But the reception they got in Gardner, Kansas, on March 21 was a first.

Marius Mellebye / Creative Commons-Flickr

Two Johnson County, Kansas, cities took opposing actions on tobacco control Monday evening.

The Prairie Village City Council voted unanimously to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, while the Gardner city council rejected a similar proposal by a unanimous vote of 5-0.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

In the exam rooms at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center in Kansas City, nurse practitioner Greg Nurrenbern sees a lot of health problems other health providers don’t.

“I will say, like, ‘How did you get this injury?’” Nurrenbern says. “And it’s like, ‘I fell off a camel,’ or ‘I got bit by a lion.’”

Nurrenbern specializes in refugee health care, and he gives many patients their first health checkup in the United States.

University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

Health is deteriorating in many rural counties while improving in many urban ones in Kansas and Missouri. But Kansas City’s innermost urban counties – Jackson and Wyandotte – continue to struggle, according to new annual county health rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Alex Smith spoke with University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Kate Konkle, who was one of the report’s researchers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

State health officials announced Friday that a southwest Kansas resident contracted the Zika virus after the resident traveled to an unspecified country where the pathogen has spread.

It’s the first confirmed case of Zika virus disease in Kansas.

Though a few cases of the virus in the United States have been spread through sexual contact, the vast majority of cases worldwide have been spread by mosquitos. So far, no transmission of the disease by mosquitos has been identified in the continental U.S.

Creative Commons

The early spring weather Kansas City is expected to enjoy this weekend can be a mixed blessing for allergy sufferers.

Doctors at Children Mercy Hospital in Kansas City report surges in pollen and mold have accompanied the blips of early warm weather the area has experienced so far in 2016 and that an intense allergy season is likely ahead.

Rob Jefferson

Rob Jefferson started losing his hearing when he was in his late teens. Sensorineural hearing loss, a progressive degenerative condition, runs in his family. His hearing gradually declined over a few decades, and though he was able to use conventional hearing aids for a few years, Jefferson, who's now 56, had lost all his natural hearing ability by his late 40s.

anthonynlee / YouTube

Would you wire your head to a battery if you thought it might help boost your brain function?

A quick Internet search turns up lots of videos of at-home tinkerers with electrodes strapped to their heads and nervous looks on their faces.

Creative Commons

A food-borne virus traced to an Overland Park dinner theater has sickened even more people than originally thought, health authorities say.

More than 600 people have now reported symptoms of norovirus after attending the New Theatre Restaurant in mid-January.

Since the first reports of the illness, state and local health authorities have been working with the popular venue on cleanup and safe food practices.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Around a quarter of adults in Wyandotte County, Kansas, smoke. That’s about twice the rate in Johnson County and well above the state average. Wyandotte County’s government recently created a coalition of partners to find ways to address the problem. For the latest in our series KC Checkup, we talked with Rebecca Garza, coordinator of Tobacco Free Wyandotte, who began by explaining the significance of  Kansas City, Kansas’ recent decision to raise the legal age for the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

At her home studio in Westwood, Kansas, yoga instructor Marilyn Pace leads a class of 5-to-8-year olds. With the help of songs, games and other kid-friendly teaching methods, she guides her small students through poses like the cobra, the triangle and the downward-facing dog.

Tatjana Alvegard takes her daughter, Kaya, to Pace’s classes regularly.

“I played sports when I was a kid, and I think it’s really important. It makes for a good, healthy adult if you learn discipline and you learn it’s good to take care of your body,” Alvegard says.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

On a Sunday morning, New Bethel Church in Kansas City, Kansas, comes alive with the sounds of worship as a full gospel choir and band bring hundreds of congregants to their feet.

At the center of the action, guitarist Clarence Taylor sits with his eyes lowered, strumming angelic-sounding chords. Taylor has a sound that would put a lot of hot-shot guitarists to shame, but he doesn’t claim the talent for himself. He says it’s a divine gift.

“I don’t know the notes,” Taylor says. “I can just pick it up. Sometimes it amazes me.”

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

For expectant parents like Melissa and Michael Funaro, the prospect of a new baby evokes a host of emotions.

“You have this thing inside of you growing, and him and I created it,” Melissa says. “So it’s like, what’s he gonna look like?”

For future mother Karina Rivera, pregnancy is exhilarating.

“Everything’s exciting,” she says. “Just buying baby clothes, buying diapers. Looking at the diapers, and they’re so tiny.”

Jamie and Laura McCamish say the wait for their baby is almost too much to bear.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

When Kelli was growing up in Olathe in the 1970s, it was a quiet, clean community boasting single-family homes and good schools. And with state laws prohibiting alcohol sales on Sundays, in grocery stores and by the glass, outsiders could have been forgiven if they found life there to be pretty straight-laced.

“You just never know what goes on behind closed doors,” says Kelli, who asked that her last name not be used.

Monte Gross

Take a Saturday morning bike ride along the Kansas side of the state line and you’ll see plenty of people playing tennis, soccer and jogging in Johnson County. Ride a bit farther north to Wyandotte County, though, and it’s clear that outdoor recreation is a much rarer phenomenon.

On a map, the counties appear to have about the same amount of parks and recreational space. But over several decades, Wyandotte County’s parks fell into a state of neglect and disrepair – to the point of being ignored by many residents.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

With Wyandotte County struggling to address a shortage of primary care physicians, a discussion exploring how that shortage affects doctors, patients and the health of our communities. Plus, what does it mean to be healthy, anyway?

Guests:

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Walk into the courtroom of Wyandotte County District Judge Kathleen M. Lynch and you may be surprised to find lawyers who aren’t asked to stand up and a judge who prefers street dress to a judge’s robes. Lynch’s docket includes lots of cases involving mental illness or substance abuse and offenders needing institutional treatment. She’s become a big advocate for more social services in the area and for courtrooms more sensitive to people who have experienced trauma.

Kansas City Health Department

Kansas City has received national recognition for its wide-ranging and collaborative efforts to improve public health.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced Wednesday at its headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, that Kansas City was a recipient of a 2015 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

“It’s an exemplary community for our country in terms of thinking about where we all need to go in promoting health,” said Don Schwarz, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in October 2015.   

Near a greasy spoon restaurant in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, two young men were killed in a drive-by shooting on a sunny afternoon earlier this year. Two more killings after what had already been a violent stretch of months.

Pastor Sheldrick Walker was in his church a few miles away when he got the news from fellow pastor Adrion Roberson.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Growing up in foster care can be challenging, but many of the biggest problems foster children face occur after they age out of the system.

Among the sobering statistics: More than one in five become homeless, nearly three out of four girls become pregnant by age 21 and only half are gainfully employed at age 24, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national foundation that assists young people leaving foster care.

Children's Mercy Hospital

Children’s Mercy Hospital on Wednesday marked the 500th delivery in its high-risk birth center, which raised some eyebrows when it opened four years ago.

Warren Emil was born to Mariah and Tom Schumacher of Knob Noster, Missouri, on the afternoon of Sept. 28.

Early in the pregnancy, doctors discovered that Warren had gastroschisis, a condition in which the intestines stick outside the body.

The Schumachers opted to have Warren delivered at Children’s Mercy so he could quickly have surgery to place the intestines back inside.

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