Houston-Galveston Schweitzer Fellow David Savage, a third-year MD/PhD student at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, has developed an orientation program that empowers refugees to navigate Houston’s healthcare system, utilize entitled health benefits, and establish consistent medical homes. Partnering with The Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, Savage helped run four health fairs for refugees that provided free blood sugar testing and flu vaccines. Savage recruited more than 30 medical students to help with each of the fairs that eventually served more than 500 clients. Savage also ran weekend classes at the apartments where refugees live. He hosted 20 classes over the course his fellowship, and he saw an average of 10 clients per class.
Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
A: It was serendipity that brought me to my project and my community site. In November 2011, I worked with several other students to plan a large scale community health fair. Originally the YMCA had agreed to host our project, but that fell through and we were left scrambling for another community partner. A friend suggested the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, which is one of Houston’s refugee resettlement agencies. The Alliance was super excited to have our fair and bent over backwards to make it a success.
About the same time I began considering applying for the Houston-Galveston Albert Schweitzer Fellowship after a faculty member encouraged me to do so. Originally I wanted to do a dental project after seeing a homeless patient in a downtown Houston clinic dealing with chronic tooth pain. He waited six months to get into a county dental clinic just to find out that he had high blood pressure and that it would have to be treated before he could get the tooth extractions he needed. I contacted several dentists but didn’t get much traction on finding a project.
After the success of the Alliance health fair I contacted them again to see if they’d be interested in having a year-long fellow. Again they were super excited by this opportunity, and we set up a time to meet and brainstorm about project ideas. This lead to my project, which improves the social determinants of healthcare access for refugees in Houston. My site mentor and the administrators at the Alliance have been incredibly committed to my project and I really could not have asked for a better arrangement.
Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
A: One of the aims of my project this year was to get other students involved. I set up a non-credit elective at my medical school where students that participate in a certain number of my project activities throughout the year get acknowledgement of their participation in their Dean’s letter for medical residency training. So far, seven students have completed all of the requirements to get this credit, and I fully expect that at least 10 will do so by the end of my project. I have also had nearly 30 student volunteers at each of the three health fairs I have hosted so far, and I should have at least as many at my final fair.
I hope that some of these students will be eager to continue some aspects of my project with the Alliance next year. I will also be renewing this non-credit elective opportunity in 2013-2014 and I have been in communication with a student from Baylor College of Medicine that plans to do a refugee-oriented project with the Alliance next year with a focus on mental health and youth way finding for their parents. It is my hope that her novel project will compliment mine and keep the momentum from this year going.
Q: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
A: I think obesity and diseases secondary to obesity will be the most trying health issue during my lifetime. In the US we are very fortunate to have easy access to abundant amounts of food. The consequence of this is that a growing portion of our population is obese, and this leads to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and joint disabilities that are extremely taxing on our healthcare system. I think it is very important that we tackle this issue from multiple fronts. Physicians need to confront the problem in each appointment; restaurants need to be more forthcoming with portion control and nutrition information; and we need major public awareness campaigns about nutrition and exercise. Right now it’s considered taboo in many places to talk about this since it’s such a sensitive issue for many people. However, I think that treating obesity as a disease and empowering the public to take action to improve their health will be essential.
Q: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
A: I have been surprised by the altruism of the people that surround me, and by the outpouring of support I have received for my project. I started collaborating early last fall with a student leader at my medical school named Erika Wood who has been integral in recruiting volunteers for my health fairs. I have also had an overwhelming turnout of students at all of my events from both the University of Texas-Houston Medical School and the University of Houston Pharmacy School. Moreover, this spring the focus of my weekend apartment-based classes has been mental health. I have had the gracious support of two psychiatrists who have both helped plan my curriculum and have come to many of my classes. Finally, my agency and site mentor have showed unparalleled support of my project. Throughout the year the administrators at the Alliance have asked for project updates, and have organized staff to support and advertise my health fairs. My site mentor has touched base with me weekly, and she has spent her valuable time to help me plan events. She has also attended all of my health fairs and many of my weekend classes. Thus, my biggest advice to future fellows is to find an agency and site mentor that are equally committed to their projects, and to identify collaborators early on that want to volunteer. This has helped me overcome every boulder and has kept my project moving forward throughout the year.
Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
A: The ASF program has taught me to make service an integral part of my life. It has taught me a lot about organizing resources and people for the greater good, and it has challenged me to find solutions to tough social issues facing refugees in the United States. As a physician I will be a servant to my patients, and as a Schweitzer Fellow for Life I will be a servant-leader to my community, wherever that may be, for the rest of my lifetime.
Click here to learn more about the Houston-Galveston Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.