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Seeds of Change – community service & curriculum

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A commitment to serving others is at the heart of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” philosophy, which led the former theologian, musical scholar, and renowned organist to change careers, earn a medical degree at age 30, and devote the rest of his life to caring for people in need, including those at his hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, in Africa.

UVM medical students tread this same path today in many similar ways, through projects directly connected with Schweitzer’s legacy, and by following their own self-directed need to engage and help their community.

Seven second-year medical students are fostering Schweitzer’s legacy through fi ve service projects they are conducting as 2009–10 Schweitzer Fellows. One of only eleven such programs in the U.S., the New Hampshire/Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program annually selects a group of health professional students, students in healthrelated disciplines and law students who seek to help those currently underserved by the healthcare system. Each project must provide at least 200 hours of service.

In one such project, second-year medical student Piyush Gupta began a daily hospital-based tutoring program called “Bedside Brainiacs” at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Gupta’s program, focused on helping kids keep up with schoolwork while spending an extended time in the hospital. Gupta focused on creating a team of tutors to ensure that pediatric patients requiring long-term hospital stays can keep up with class assignments.

“Upon returning to school, these children are behind in their work and try to catch up to their peers, which may be difficult, since they may still not be functioning at their optimal level,” says Gupta, who partnered with Fletcher Allen’s Volunteer Services offi ce on the program. Since this program’s launch in 2009, Gupta has involved his College of Medicine classmates as well as UVM undergrad students as volunteer tutors.

Second-year students Jessie Kerr and Patrick Butsch combined service and learning far from the medicalcampus this past summer when they traveled for three weeks through Peru. Th anks to one of seven travel awards funded by the College’s Medical Alumni Association in 2009, Kerr and Butsch first journeyed to the Caritas Felices Girls’ Home in southwest Peru, about an hour outside of Lima. Th e facility is the only federally-funded home for sexually abused girls in Peru. Run by two Catholic nuns and many volunteers, it is a refuge for about 45 girls aged 2 through 18. It was, of course, deeply affecting to work with the girls, Kerr explains, and though they found the experience to be emotional and sad, they were inspired by the strength and support the girls receive at the home.

Kerr and Butsch introduced the Caritas Felices girls to a morning exercise routine (though volleyball is regularly played, there was previously no structured exercise) and they brought with them more than 100 tooth fluoridation kits to use to treat the girls — an important contribution in an area where toothpaste is in short supply. The remaining kits were used when Kerr and Butsch traveled north to the Napo River area in the Amazon Basin. They worked with a Peruvian doctor in the town of Iquitos, and then ventured by boat up the Napo to study the vaccination program for tropical diseases in that area. Kerr and Butsch found the project richly rewarding, and they hope that the connections they have established, particularly with DB Peru, the charitable health care organization that facilitated their journey, can be utilized by other medical students for service/learning projects in the future.

Closer to home, with the H1N1 infl uenza pandemic in the news every day this fall, the nation’s airwaves and newspapers were fi lled with advice on how to avoid transmitting or catching the virus, and how to secure one of the doses of vaccine that were in short supply. But even before this crest of concern, Joanna Conant and sevenof her third-year classmates had worked to gather hard data on a problem closely linked to the infl uenza threat: What would the potential fi nancial impact be on working families from this or another widespread pandemic?

Concerns regarding this threat prompted the Vermont Paid Sick Days Coalition to host a press conference on the issue in Burlington’s Old North End in mid-September. Among the speakers at the event was Conant, who presented the results of her group’s public health project. The students took on the assignment last academic year as the focus of their second-year Medical Student Leadership Group (MSLG). “Th ese projects are ‘practical research,’” explains Jan Carney, M.D., M.P.H., associate dean for public health, MSLG II director, and former Vermont commissioner of health. “Th ey enable community interventions that can be sustained over time and shared with other communities, both in Vermont and nationally.”

The students surveyed parents of second to fourth graders at nine elementary schools in four counties in Vermont. They found that 32.4 percent of families who had three or less paid sick days and had no adult at home sent their child to school with what they judged to be significant illness. Parents in the study felt compelled to send their ill children to school for various reasons, including having no one to supervise the child (13.5 percent) and not being able to afford to stay home (10.8 percent). In addition, the study found that families with three or fewer paid sick days indicated much greater difficulty in taking children to physician visits than those who had more than three paid sick days (34.4 percent compared to 13.1 percent). “We conclude that the availability of paid sick days benefit Vermont children’s health,” the students stated in the study.

The Sick Days Coalition used the press conference and the students’ research as part of their continuing work for passage of H.382, a Vermont bill that seeks to allow working Vermonters to earn up to seven paid sick days annually.

Conant and fellow students in the group presented their research findings at the American Public Health Association national meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., in November. In addition to Conant, members of the public health project group included Dino Barhoum, David Diller, Annya Fischer, Marisa Hori, Hunter Moore, and Kathryn Richard.

According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, more than 12 percent of Vermont households are “food insecure” — meaning they do not have consistent access to enough food on a daily basis. Helping families in need achieve food security is the aim of a community food shelf, which relies on citizens and businesses for donations to meet this objective. However, the nutritional quality of the donations is not always addressed.

In collaboration with the Burlington, Vt.-based Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, a project led by second-year medical students is seeking to ensure that the local food shelf not only takes in enough donations, butreceives food that is truly nutritious.

Nutrition as a public health issue has been the focus of student projects over the past six years. Th is latest group developed a poster promoting a list of “Food Shelf Friendly”- designated foods and associated stickers to be placed on shelves at several area grocery stores. Th e list emphasized vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and included a variety of foods, paying attention to calories, protein, saturated fat, and sodium.

“We collected baseline data from seven stores about how much food is being donated normally,” explains second-year student Isaac Noyes. “Th en, in early November, the poster and stickers went up at three stores, and the poster with a tear-off list of foods to donate went up at two stores.” Two stores, which serve as the study’s comparison of methods, had neither of these interventions.

The team’s final results will be presented at the College’s Public Health Project Poster Session and Celebration in late January 2010, “an event that allows this group and 14 others to publicly share their insights into public health,” says Dr. Carney. “And medical students who understand public health and the community will be better physicians.”

Seeds of Change – community service & curriculum conant.jpg A commitment to serving others is at the heart of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life”