Without 161,808 devoted volunteers, the groundbreaking WHI studies conducted at Fred Hutch and around the U.S. would not have happened. These are some of their stories.
Fran Trowbridge, Hormone Study participant
Trowbridge didn’t hesitate to join when the study began in the early 90s. “If this body can help with anything, well, why not? I was curious about hormones, and I wanted to help other women—part of the sisterhood thing,” she said.
She remains in the WHI Extension Study, diligently recording any falls on a calendar.
“I feel a sense of pride when I hear or read about WHI in the news. I say, ‘Hey, I was part of that,” Trowbridge said. “I enjoy the updates about what WHI is learning. I pass them on to other retirees and they’re fascinated, too.”
Olga Lamarche, Dietary Modification and Calcium/Vitamin D participant
When Olga Lamarche joined the WHI Dietary Study, she hoped to lose some weight and learn more about nutrition: “If it hadn’t been for the study, I probably just would have given up on weight loss and said, ‘What the heck—my weight doesn’t really matter. Everybody’s body changes as they grow older.’”
Instead, she attended WHI dietary meetings, gleaning important insights from the knowledgeable nutritionists. Lamarche learned to read nutrition labels on foods, count fat grams, and eat a leaner diet. “WHI encouraged me to live healthy.
Now I know how important it is to be aware of what I’m doing and pay attention to nutrition,” said the 74-year-old, who credits the habits with keeping her in great health as she ages.
After years of running her own travel agency and a second career as a paralegal, Lamarche now works part-time for a weight-loss program, helping spread the message of healthy eating.
“Good nutrition, as well as physical activity, the number of hours you sleep, and your attitude—you have to have an open mind for new things, and I think all of that was enhanced by the Women’s Health Initiative,” she said.
Even being in the WHI Extension Study and tracking any falls impacts LaMarche.
“It’s made me a lot more careful, and I’m making a conscious effort to be more aware of the ground in front of me by looking ahead instead of down. I’ve learned to walk better. I don’t want to mar the calendar with a fall,” she said.
Michaela Lobel, Hormone Study participant
During her working years as an administrator at a brain research laboratory in New York City, Michaela Lobel saw firsthand how much scientists depend on volunteers to participate in research studies. So when WHI began recruiting women for its landmark study, Lobel joined thousands in signing up.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said. “It was contributing to something that was important. I was interested in helping to determine if hormone therapy worked against breast cancer. I felt this study would contribute to knowledge about what would help women’s health.”
Lobel, who will turn 90 this spring, moved to Seattle last year to be closer to her daughter and two grandsons. She left behind work as an actress in an intergenerational theater group.
She remains involved in WHI studies, providing data about her daily routine and cognitive function, even wearing an accelerometer, a small monitor worn on the hip that measures her activity and sedentary time. Such research may lead to a better understanding of ways to prevent cancer, heart disease, fractures and falls in older women.
For Lobel, lending a hand to science isn’t a complicated decision: “I’m just interested in doing what I can to help research,” she said.
Juanita Thomas, Dietary Modification and Calcium/Vitamin D participant
As a fourth-generation teacher, Juanita Thomas spent years educating children, providing foundational skills for them to become lifelong learners. So it wasn’t surprising that in her retirement, she was eager to help WHI researchers learn more about women’s health.
“I wanted to know more about me for me and for them,” she said. “I liked the fact that WHI was focusing on women. I did not know until that time that this was the first major study to focus on women only—all of the things we knew came from large studies of men.”
In modifying her diet to adhere to the study’s guidelines, Thomas, 81, made lasting changes that still benefit her today.
“It taught me to read food labels, and I still use some of the low-fat alternatives. It helped me understand that there are many things we can do for ourselves, like adapting a recipe so it works for me,” she said. “The longer I live, the more I realize how the study influenced my health for the better.”
Thomas won a prize in her WHI group for her healthy spinach pie, a dish she still cooks today because “it’s easy and it’s good for us,” delighting family members who are watching their waistlines.
Mindful of the example she’s setting for her six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren through her study involvement, Thomas hopes more people will participate in studies like WHI.
“What legacy do we leave on this earth? I’ve left something,” she said. “If women hadn’t stepped up, we wouldn’t have the answers we have today.”