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Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

This week, we talk with Schweitzer Fellows for Life (program alumni) Meg Quimper and Brodie Parent. As Fellows, these University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine students spent last year working to develop a behavioral health educational program at the Allegheny County Jail. Below, they discuss their journey of service, and their hopes for their program’s continued impact.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

When we were developing our project a year ago, we wanted to address an unmet health care need in the city of Pittsburgh. In order to learn more about our city’s public health gaps, we talked with the director of the Allegheny County Health Department, Dr. Bruce Dixon, who filled us in on the need for behavioral health services at the Allegheny County Jail.

We connected with the health services director at the jail and developed a program to do behavioral health education with a focus on addiction and its effects on health. We started by putting together a few presentations focusing on the effects of drugs and alcohol on the body. We then moved onto discussing the sequelae of abuse, including its effects on chronic diseases and its predisposing risk for blood-borne pathogens and sexually transmitted diseases

What was the lasting impact of your project on the community it served?

We hope that greater access to medical information will act as a catalyst for changing harmful behaviors. In the future, the information we provide may affect decision making and lead to better-informed choices.

For instance, several diabetic men were horrified to realize that substance abuse plays a major role in the worsening of their disease and the hastening of its progression. They were educated on some of the possible outcomes of uncontrolled blood sugars and are now able to consider how their actions may affect their diabetes and overall health.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

There are a number of pressing health-related issues today.  However, in our short time in clinics this past year, one of the pressing problems noted is the detrimental effect of a fragmented communication system between doctors. A single patient often has multiple doctors working to take care of him; this is beneficial as each doctor has a different expertise, but can be harmful when the team of doctors is uninformed of the others’ actions. This happens regularly in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Tests may be ordered multiple times by different physicians, and treatments can be delayed when the plan of one physician is not passed on to another. This is a costly and avoidable problem for healthcare system today. The implementation of a universal electronic medical record is one way that this situation can be improved.

What was the most surprising element of your experience as Schweitzer Fellows?

Quimper: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed working with the inmates. They were very forthcoming with their stories and questions about medical conditions, and our sessions were a lot of fun at the jail.

At the start of our project, I was somewhat nervous about being a female working with male inmates at a large county jail. I was unsure how I would be accepted and if they would respect me and our project. However, we were well received and most definitely respected by the inmates. The men were always very polite and grateful for our time.

Brodie: I was most surprised by the curiosity of the men we worked with. Before starting the project, I had feared that our audience would not be actively engaged. However, I was delighted to find that they were not only interested but also enthralled and startled by the information we provided. They often challenged me to learn more about the concepts presented and had thought-provoking questions at nearly every session.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow means that we have made a commitment to community service both presently and in the future. That’s why we are referred to as ‘Fellows for Life’ at the end of our fellowship year. With this title, we are reminded that life is richest and most meaningful when lived for others. The experience has certainly strengthened this commitment and has ascertained that we are capable of filling gaps in communities in need. Finally, the Fellowship provides a network of inspirational friends who are admired for their integrity and leadership.

Meg Quimper and Brodie Parent are Schweitzer Fellows for Life in Pittsburgh, PA. Click here to read more about The Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Jyothindran and Liao it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Quimper and Parent’s efforts to improve the behavioral health of vulnerable people, click here.