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Born and raised in the Philippines, Merlyn Chua came to the U.S. in 1990 to find job opportunities that would support her family and fund the education of her three younger siblings. 22 years later, Chua’s siblings are nurses and physical therapists—and Chua herself is a nurse practitioner at Mercy Hospital who is motivated by an abiding desire to make a difference both in the U.S. and abroad.

As a nursing student at St. Xavier University and a 2008-09 Chicago Schweitzer Fellow, Chua launched a drop-in health and wellness service for individuals experiencing homelessness. Four years later, as a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (program alumna) she continues her journey as a Leader in Service—whether in Chicago (where she mentors nursing students from underserved populations) or in her hometown of Maasin (where she recently organized a medical mission delivering health services and education; she is pictured above, center, with stethoscope).

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

Nursing has had a special appeal for me ever since I was a child in elementary school. When it was time to make the decision to formally pursue nursing, I recognized that not only would I have many job opportunities in that field; I would also be able to meet aspirations that are close to my heart—namely, to serve people who are underprivileged and marginalized.

I decided to apply to the Schweitzer Fellowship at the end of my clinical rotation in Community Health Nursing at Fourth Presbyterian Church in the Elam Davies Social Service Center. I partnered with the Center for Whole Health, a program of Chicago Lights at Fourth Presbyterian Church, to develop a drop-in health and wellness service offering health assessments, health screenings, counseling, education, and referrals to individuals experiencing homelessness.

Since then, I have continued to carry out projects that are in the Schweitzer spirit—including organizing a medical mission to my hometown, Maasin, in the Philippines last year. On the mission, we held a health fair that offered free services including cardiac health screenings, blood sugar checks for diabetes, tests for cholesterol levels, and blood pressure checks. I coordinated and supervised this as a nurse practitioner with the help of local cardiologists and family doctors.

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

Maasin community members line up to enter the health fair.

Simple actions definitely bring a great impact to our local community. For example, as I told the Chicago Lights newsletter, I encouraged a Mr. C, a patient who was afflicted with psoriasis, to keep his appointment at the VA. He later returned to me with three topical creams for his body and face, but complained that he did not know how to apply them. I spent some time providing him with instructions and demonstrating topical application. He came back a week later with clear facial skin. There was no trace of psoriasis in the previously affected areas. Upon leaving, he said, “Thank you so much for the encouragement and time you spent teaching me!”

Additionally, I am certain that through the Maasin medical mission, we were able to make a difference in the lives of the community of Maasin. Realistically speaking, I recognize that it will be a while before we will see any major positive changes in Maasin with regard to health issues. I had not been home for more than 12 years, and seeing the high prevalence of my townsfolk afflicted with hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, and lacking access to proper medication and care was disheartening. However, we are optimistic that our health fair helped to influence people to make healthy changes to their lifestyle. The overall goal of this mission was to facilitate access to health care, achieve health equity, and eliminate health disparities—in line with the goals of Healthy People 2020.

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

Maasin youth learn to take blood pressure readings at the health fair.

Obesity among children—who are going to consume large amounts of health care dollars even before they reach their 50s. My observation is that obesity is becoming a global problem and can have devastating impact on everyone if we don’t do anything about it. The solution is multipronged—from food preparation at home and mandatory gym classes to nutrition education and public policy mandates (such as serving no soft drinks/sodas at school).

I understand the difficulties that a healthcare provider faces when addressing issues surrounding health. Some of the problems we encounter are deeply rooted. But my spiritual and social beliefs prompt me to not stand aside, but be part of the solution.

I believe that if we share the basic premise of wanting wellness and health, through ingenuity and skill we can make a difference in our community by partnering with existing mechanisms of care. I’m happy that I took advantage of an opportunity in Maasin to do something rather than sit on the bleachers.

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

During the Fellowship, I was impressed by the quality and magnitude of training and community projects. The Fellowship provided me with vast opportunities to mingle with people with similar outlooks. It increased my awareness and gave me alternate ways to work towards resolving social issues and problems that exist in the community. My experience in the Fellowship rekindled the importance of giving back to the community.

Most of all, I’m in awe of the life and accomplishments of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, an MD, philosopher, theologian, and musician. His words “Do something for somebody every day for which you do not get paid” are a noble dictum that runs deep inside me. This  kind of selfless service is central to the ASF experience.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life [program alumna] mean to you?

It is a lifetime commitment to community service. It means that volunteering is not a part-time job. I’m currently participating in a two-year mentoring program for nursing students from underrepresented populations who are recipients of a Robert Wood Johnson award from Rush University. It is an honor to mentor these nursing students and I’m confident that through the mentoring experience they in turn will look for opportunities in life to do something for somebody without being paid.

Merlyn Chua is a Schweitzer Fellow for Life in Chicago, IL. Click here to read more about The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF)’s & Health & Medicine Policy Research Group (HMPRG)’s  Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Chua it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that improve the health and well-being of vulnerable people and communities. To make a gift to support the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program, click here.

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.