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Antronette Yancey: An Untimely Death of a Public Health Hero

Antronette Yancey: An Untimely Death of a Public Health Hero

Picture of Michelle Levander

Last July, after I dialed into a  conference call, I heard a throaty, painfully hoarse voice weigh in on an important health issue. To my surprise, it was Antronette Yancey, M.D. Barely able to speak, she was determined not to let her voice be silenced. That’s how I first learned that Dr. Yancey, known as Toni to her friends, was ill.

Toni was diagnosed with lung cancer in February 2012.  Last Friday, I attended the funeral of this extraordinary colleague, friend and mentor. I am grieving. But I also am heartened after hearing dozens of colleagues and former students express their gratitude for her presence in their lives. They promised to carry on her good work and her impressive legacy.

 Toni always seemed to me to be a larger than life figure: vibrant, brilliant, funny, dynamic and humane. I couldn’t imagine that anything could stop her. Graceful and strikingly beautiful at 6’2”, Toni had made her mark in multiple realms. She played Division I basketball during her undergraduate years at Northwestern, while also majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. She was a model, a physician, a poet and an internationally respected public health researcher. She co-directed the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity. And she served on the advisory board of our program, USC Annenberg’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

 She had an important and less publicly heralded role, too, as a great mentor. She spent countless hours over the years encouraging minority graduate students to keep going when they hit obstacles along the way. “She diversified the student body and the faculty in our department,” said Alex Ortega, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and health services researcher affiliated with the Health Policy and Management Department at UCLA’s Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health. “She was involved in helping to recruit minority faculty, including me.”

 As she contended with lung cancer over the last year, Toni’s life took on a charged intensity.

 Last July, as she recovered from a series of painful surgeries on her right vocal cord, she was nevertheless hard at work on a major research proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling me and many others to discuss the possibilities for collaboration. Her aim: to broaden the reach and impact nationally of her signature public health program, Instant Recess.  

 By October, weakened by chemotherapy, she wrote to friends that she was putting the finishing touches on the second edition of her collaborative book of poetry and art, “An Old Soul with a Young Spirit: Poetry in the Era of Desegregation Recovery,’ first published in 1997. In November, she gave a Ted talk, characterized by enthusiasm, but tempered by a hoarse voice caused by the cancer growing inside her.

 Awarded a five-year, $20 million CDC grant for Instant Recess in October, she somehow found the energy to set the national project into motion. Even at her worse moments, friends say, she tried to walk a mile daily. She also cherished moments with her family and friends, delighting in the company of her partner, Darlene Edgley, and her young granddaughter, Anais.

 “She was going to live life to the fullest and do what she could do while she was here,” said her longtime collaborator, Melicia Whitt-Glover, Ph.D., the head of Gramercy Research in Winston-Salem, N.C. “When it was her time, she was going to go. What gave her joy was doing this work. Any time she felt strong enough, she was firing off emails, giving us things to do. Absolutely, the work will go on.”

In her writings to friends at that time, she radiated gratitude for good wishes and spoke of the ebb and flow of her energy during chemo rounds and after an unsuccessful drug regimen.

 “This is requiring a renewed commitment to staying in the moment, as truly I never know what to expect from one day to the next. It's quite an adjustment for someone very accustomed to advance planning for functioning at a high level of intensity most of the time,“ she wrote.

 In December, Toni made a surprise visit to our advisory board meeting. As she walked slowly with me afterward, her face lit up as she talked about collaborations; the importance of communicating key ideas on fitness and obesity prevention through journalism; colleagues whom she wanted to introduce me to and more. As we took each measured step down a long corridor, I struggled to reconcile her fragility with her inner strength. 

 I first met Toni at an educational forum for journalists years ago. Many of us at the event had long ago turned our exercise bicycles into coat racks. Two members of the group weighed in at probably 300 pounds. After sharing results of a study on the benefits of walking groups, Toni  turned on a portable CD player.  Before any of us quite knew how it happened, we were all on our feet, dancing, clapping, snapping our fingers, led by Toni, who was dancing at the front of the room and taking it all in with evident enjoyment.

None of us would have been ready to do a 100-yard dash in 10 seconds afterward. But we had shaken ourselves out of the torpor that can settle in easily in lecture halls or offices; we had moved and stretched and set our bodies in motion. And that, as most of us will guiltily admit, is all too rare in today’s workplaces. Those brief bursts of motion – integrated into the workday – represented the central idea behind Toni’s Instant Recess.

 As she wrote in the opening chapter of “Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time”:

 Despite a forty-year investment in education and counseling, leisure time has become less active, and physical activity levels have plummeted. A different approach is needed, one that is grounded in the cultures and preferences of the sedentary majority. Reintegrating short bouts of enjoyable activity into the workplace, school, religious and social settings in which people congregate for other purposes makes the active choice the easy or default choice – the path of least resistance…

 Toni first hit upon the idea for Instant Recess while serving as director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion for Los Angeles County. This lifelong athlete realized that even as her office was pumping out public health messages, few colleagues were exercising at all. She established a policy that for every hour-long meeting or conference, the department would have a 10-minute Instant Recess break. She was always careful to have the exercise and dance routine led by someone who was not especially slim -- or even wearing athletic clothes. The idea: send a message that the activity was for everyone.

 Her first research paper on the benefits of Instant Recess was based on her experience with these county employees.  Her initial name for the program was LIFTOFF, as in “Lift these buns off couches and chairs.”

 “Her determination made converts of all of us,” recalled Jonathan Fielding, M.D., director of the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. “While there is no gold star for prevention,” surely, he said in a tribute at her funeral, there should be recognition for a woman of Toni’s extraordinary vision.

 Toni managed to elicit the support of high profile figures for the Instant Recess program, including Allen Rossum of the Atlanta Falcons, former President Bill Clinton and top executives of the San Diego Padres, who started a version of Instant Recess during games. Michelle Obama asked her to serve on her advisory board as she launched her “Let’s Move” campaign.    

 Perhaps her message went so far because the underlying idea was so simple. Confronted with a national obesity and diabetes epidemic, Toni wanted all of us to recapture the “unbridled joy” in activity and play of a kid at recess. As she wrote in a 1996 poem, “Recapturing Recess”:

 Now I know

Y’all can remember

The recess bell


The wave of exhilaration

The sigh of relief

The sheer release


The poem continues: 


Into air and space

And wind and sunshine


And if you can recapture

Even a little of the joy

Of unbridled movement


Then just maybe

There’s hope


The Prevention Institute is asking workplaces across America to hold a 10-minute “Instant Recess” in Toni’s honor, at 1 p.m. PDT on Tuesday, May 7. Click here to see Toni and the Los Angeles Sparks lead you and your colleagues through a brief activity break. The Prevention Institute asks participants to take a picture or quick video and share it on Facebook or Twitter. You can use the hashtag #Instant Recess to get people moving across the country.


Picture of Christina Elston

Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your tribute to the amazing Dr. Yancey. I first met her thanks to my Reporting On Health fellowship, where I, like you, became part of a room of stunned and happy journalists moving and shaking (as best we could) to the music -- with Toni Yancey as our head cheerleader. When I last spoke with her in September of last year, I had no idea about her diagnosis, and her energy over the phone as she talked about Instant Recess was inspiring.

Here is a link to the article I wrote for a special edition of L.A. Parent in October: 

Picture of

I met Dr. Yancey in 2000. She was meeting with my Director st Fox Chase Cancer Center to explore opportunities for collaboration. She presented at our population science meeting. We talked numerous times afterward in person and by phone. On one ocasion she autographed and gave me one of her published works of poetry which I still have and cherish to this day, 2019. Toni, you may an awesome impact on my life. You are truly missed and will always be remembered.

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