UNMC's Ira Combs to appear in national insurance calendar

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Ira Combs and Dr. Jesse prepare for their photo shoot as freelance photographer Lou Jones composes the perfect shot.
Ira Combs, community nurse liaison in UNMC's Center for Reducing Health Disparities, is one of the 12 faces that will appear in Aetna's African-American History Calendar.

The 2008 edition focuses on health literacy. The issue highlights efforts being made across the county to improve public understanding of medical topics. One of the reasons Combs was selected for the "In the Neighborhood" segment is the unique idea he developed to teach the community about healthy habits.

Dr. Jesse (and the Prevention Gang) is a puppet who sings and discusses health issues in a way that is easy for kids (and adults) to understand.

"Dr. Jesse can say things that I couldn't say," Combs said. "He gets people to listen. He jokes around and makes health fun."

The characters visit schools, health fairs and community events. They also are featured in comic books, "hip-hop" videos on YouTube and a local community access show.

Combs was nominated for the calendar by Valda Boyd Ford of the Center for Human Diversity and Siobhan Champ-Blackwell of the Network of Libraries of Medicine Mid-Continental Region, for which Combs is a member of the regional advisory board.

"If he just did Dr. Jesse that would be more than enough, but that's not all he does," Champ-Blackwell said. "He is a visible presence in the north Omaha community, conducting health screenings, serving as editor of a community health newsletter and being a resource for overall health information."

"My mission is to get people to think about health as a lifestyle -- not a luxury," Combs said. "There are things they can do now to save their life and save them money."

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Ira Combs, Dr. Jesse and Educare preschoolers work it for the camera.
A photography crew recently stopped to take pictures of Combs, Dr. Jesse and group of kids from Educare day care center in north Omaha. Combs and Dr. Jesse visit the center twice a year to teach the children about healthy habits, the importance of hand washing, and basic health information.

In the calendar, 14 children will appear prominently in the photograph along with Combs and Dr. Jesse. About 80 pictures were taken during the session.

Photographer Lou Jones said it wasn't easy working with a room full of children under the age of six but they were very patient with all of the takes.

"It was a different experience," Combs said. "Dr. Jesse and I couldn't talk to all of the kids because it had to be staged for the picture. But it was a lot of fun. And the kids did a great job posing for all of the photos."

Combs will be featured in the month of July. The Aetna African American History Calendar comes out later this month.