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"Once you learn that you have the ability to positively impact your community ... it is impossible to stop," says Schweitzer Fellow John Ryan Hayes.

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.

According to the Community Health Partnership of Illinois (CHP), 30,000 migrant farm workers and family members are currently living and working across the state. Due to language, financial, and other barriers, these farm workers and their families face difficulty accessing health care, and suffer disproportionately high chronic disease rates.

Schweitzer Fellow John Ryan Hayes is doing something about it. For his Schweitzer service project, this Midwestern University, Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine student is partnering with the CHP to enhance farm workers’ access to care. From developing pharmacy assistance programs and a medical sample dispensary for medications that are prohibitively expensive, to creating low literacy Spanish-language handouts so that patients with little formal education can better understand their medical conditions and treatment plans, Hayes is hard at work building the CHP’s capacity to effect change—and his ultimate goal is to help Illinois’ migrant farm workers live healthier, happier lives.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

During my undergrad at Marquette University, I was the president of one chapter of a student organization called Global Medical Brigades. I led a group of students and healthcare professionals on biannual medical mission trips to rural villages in Honduras, setting up free temporary clinics in and around the impoverished Honduran city of Tegucigalpa.

This was a year-round commitment that required extensive fundraising and medical supply acquisition. I spent 7 weeks in Honduras over a span of 5 years and learned many valuable life skills. My trips to Honduras taught me how to assess the needs of communities and how to work diligently to meet those needs. More importantly, my trips taught me that apathy is unacceptable when you have the means to change lives of the less fortunate.

When I started medical school, I was disappointed with the clubs and service opportunities available to me. Nothing offered the level of commitment, opportunity to learn, and ability to help others that I was accustomed to. In the middle of my first year of med school, my Schweitzer Fellowship started with a free lunch: I went to a “Dean’s Lunch” at Midwestern University and listened to Ray Wang, Chicago Program Director, give a talk about the Schweitzer Fellowship.  It was exactly what I was looking for.

I began investigating the Fellowship and eventually picked the Community Health Partnership of Illinois (CHP) out of the Chicago site list. The CHP primarily serves migrant Hispanic farm workers. I had worked with low-income Hispanic people in the past and decided to work to help this unique group overcome barriers to accessing medical care.

My project idea is that simple, culturally competent medical advice can greatly improve overall health. I decided that through individual counseling and by improving the CHP’s written materials, I could help seasonal and migrant farm workers lead healthier and happier lives.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope that my efforts can improve the quality of life for the CHP’s farm worker patients by giving them the tools to overcome healthcare barriers. My project primarily addresses the prohibitive cost of medication and the deficit of helpful written materials in Spanish.

The CHP’s farm worker patients are some of the hardest working people in America, but they make very little money and often send a percentage of their income to family in their home countries.  In order to address this issue, I am helping the CHP develop pharmacy assistance programs and a medical sample dispensary for medications that are prohibitively expensive.

I am also creating a variety of low literacy Spanish-language handouts so that patients with little formal education can better understand their medical conditions and treatment plans. Often, patients fail to understand or correctly remember complicated medication instructions, so I am writing a standardized Spanish handout for our most prescribed and confusing medications.

I am also giving patients a “mobile chart” that lists their medications and diagnosed conditions so that they can continue treatment if they return to their home countries or move on to jobs elsewhere in the United States. In the “mobile chart,” I have included simple explanations of chronic illnesses and the lifestyle changes that can fight these diseases.

My project will improve the ability of the CHP to empower its patients to overcome financial, language, and literacy barriers, hopefully leading to healthier lives. Once my project is completed, the CHP’s network of clinics will have an increased ability to provide simple, culturally competent medical advice.

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

I think immigration is one of the most important health and human rights issues in America. Over fifty percent of America’s farm workers are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Migrant farm work is recognized as one of the hardest and lowest paying jobs in America. Many of these hardworking people have serious health conditions like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. Instead of caring for these vital and productive members of our society, our government treats them like common criminals and works to deny basic services.

If someone wants to come to America and provide an essential service, like growing our food or maintaining our parks, then they should be permitted with minimal governmental red tape. It can take years and thousands of dollars for an immigrant to get a green card or citizen status. It is unreasonable to ask someone with little education from rural Mexico to comply with America’s convoluted immigration law. I think the recent developments in Arizona are a step in the wrong direction and the result of some misguided thinking. The last thing we should be doing is making process more difficult, militarizing our borders, and deporting peaceful, productive members of our society.

America’s problem is not that we have “illegals.” Our problem is that we do not have a coherent system that allows immigrants to work and thrive in our country. We should grant amnesty to those already living in America and make it much easier for migrants to come and find whatever work is available. I hope that one day an organization like the Community Health Partnership of Illinois will not be necessary and that hardworking immigrants will be able to receive the same social benefits as everyone else contributing to society.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I am currently in the summer between my first and second year of medical school. In the medical education hierarchy, I am little more than an overeager college kid. It is surprising that I can make a difference for an organization that contributes so much to society. I am amazed that the Community Health Partnership has been so trusting and supportive from the onset of my Fellowship. I look forward to working with this organization for the rest of my Fellowship year and for many years to come.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow puts me in contact with a large pool of amazing organizations and the inspired people behind them. I am honored to be a member of a socially active group of people who continuously try to improve the lives of those around them.

The Schweitzer Fellowship is an important part of my medical education. This Fellowship is shaping me into a more effective and culturally competent future physician. The experiences I have gained as a Fellow will heavily influence me to continue a life of service. Once you learn that you have the ability to positively impact your community, even as a medical student, it is impossible to stop. Service is as addictive as it is educational!

John Ryan Hayes is a Schweitzer Fellow in Chicago, IL. Click here to read more about The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program (hosted by Health & Medicine Policy Research Group) and the Fellows like Hayes it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Hayes’ efforts to improve the health status of migrant farm workers in Illinois, click here. Thanks to a matching grant from a generous anonymous donor, your gift will be doubled!

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