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Learning to serve, serving to learn

May 8th, 2006

By Dale Greer

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Medical students Web Sublett, Adam Travis, Enid Choi and Beth Milliner.

Medical school is about many things: classroom instruction, clinical training, and many, many late nights during which students struggle to absorb the avalanche of information necessary for them to become doctors.

In perhaps the most fundamental way, medical school also is about service.

“The reason we go into medicine is to minister to the health needs of others,” said Toni Ganzel, M.D., dean of students in the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

“Doctors want to contribute in a positive way to all of society, which they certainly can do in their everyday practices. But as leaders in our communities, we also need to give back through volunteerism and service projects that help meet the needs of medically underserved populations. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

Students embrace volunteering

It’s a lesson that clearly has been taken to heart by U of L’s 606 medical students. Last year alone they contributed thousands of hours to community service programs benefiting hundreds of Louisville-area residents.

In fact, more than 95 percent of all medical students complete some form of community service program before graduating, Ganzel said, from participating in a fund-raising walk-a-thon to providing free medical care at a student-staffed clinic. Students have so many opportunities to serve, each class selects a student services coordinator to help manage volunteerism.

Beth Milliner ran for the post of second-year coordinator because she enjoys the opportunity to help, despite her busy schedule.

“School is very demanding of my time, but when I volunteer, I can really see why I’m studying to be a doctor: to help people,” Milliner said.

“I know we think we’re busy now, but we’re going to be even busier when we become doctors. And if we can’t find the time to serve our communities now, we’re never going to.”

Milliner has helped coordinate dozens of service opportunities this past year, including collection drives for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Service opportunities abound

The school’s service initiatives include the Community Outreach Program and projects sponsored by groups like the Organization of Student Representatives.

The Community Outreach Program was established in 2002 as a vehicle to provide educational seminars to medically underserved communities, said fourth-year student Wes Sublett, one of the group’s co-founders. Since its inception, students have presented dozens of programs on health-related subjects like nutrition, smoking and breast cancer.

The Organization of Student Representatives, meanwhile, has been instrumental in providing influenza vaccinations to some of Louisville’s neediest populations, said second-year medical student and OSR representative Adam Travis. Since 2002, student volunteers have administered more than 3,000 vaccine doses at city homeless shelters, thanks to a $20,000 grant provided by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals through the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“Being involved with this vaccination program, I’ve really seen the need that exists in some parts of our community,” Travis said. “So many people just don’t have the resources to pay for medical care. It’s very rewarding to know we’re truly helping people though our community service.”

It all comes back to medicine

Perhaps the most popular student service opportunities are the six free, student-staffed clinics, which treat thousands of patients annually under the supervision of attending physicians, said second-year student Enid Choi. About 130 students volunteer at the clinics each year, including 20 student co-directors.

The students greet incoming patients, take their histories and vital signs, and conduct brief physical exams before presenting each case to a physician. The doctor and student then conduct an exam together to see if the student missed anything, and they decide on an appropriate course of treatment.

“We typically see patients who don’t have access to regular medical care because they can’t afford it,” said Choi, a student director at the Hope Clinic.

“It’s easy to get bogged down by classes and grades, but we need to remember why we all applied to medical school in the first place. The desire to serve is something that I hope never goes away. It’s the most important part of medicine.”

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