Schweitzer Fellows for Life Henry Gerard Colmer and Bryan Neth are medical students at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Last year, partnering with both the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the Alzheimer’s Association, they created an eight- to 10-week cognitive and behavioral program for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
Bryan: We ultimately decided to focus on the geriatric population, as we felt this is a population that can be easily overlooked. Our project mentors, Drs. Kaycee Sink and Morgan Bain, helped us narrow our focus to individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The very nature of these disorders (memory loss and cognitive impairment) leaves this population vulnerable. Both Gerad and I have previously seen the profound effects of dementia on both the patients and caregivers in clinic and in the community. Personally, serving those with dementia is very important, as I would ultimately like to receive training in Neurology and Dementia, and perform research to improve our understanding of these diseases in hopes of prevention and cure. As a second year medical student, to see this disease process and its effects on a weekly basis helps in my personal understanding of dementia and will surely impact my future work.
Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
Gerard: We have worked with the gerontology interest group at Wake Forest School of Medicine to make our eight- to 10-week program part of their organization to help ensure that even while the individuals who attend Wake Forest may change with the passing years our program will continue on as new students fill the ranks of the gerontology interest group.
Q: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Gerard: I would argue that the most pressing health-related issue of our time is the lack of access to health care that many individuals are facing. It’s a multifaceted issue that encompasses a wide variety of concerns that need to be addressed including health care costs, the rising number of uninsured/under-insured individuals, insufficient practitioners in certain geographic regions, as well as the lack of educational resources individuals need to empower them to make informed decisions about their health.
Bryan: I think the aging population of the United States will be the most pressing health-related issue of our time. The sheer number of Baby Boomers combined with the gaps in our knowledge of the aging process will present formidable challenges. The beauty of medicine is that when it works well individuals are able to live longer, healthier lives. This is great, yet in the history of the human population we have not lived as long as we do in the present. There will be disease processes, like Alzheimer’s disease, that will increase in incidence/prevalence. We will also see the long-term management of chronic conditions already facing our population.
Q: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
Gerard: I have been pleasantly surprised at how eager and motivated the group participants have been in engaging in the various activities that we facilitate in our small group sessions. Also, based upon the task at hand you will often witness an individual who is ‘higher functioning’ in the domain that the task requires act to help the ‘lower functioning’ individuals. This really creates a special environment where, even though we are pushing them to ‘exercise their brains’ which can be very taxing, we all often end up laughing together and having a good time. The strength and resilience displayed, especially by the higher functioning individuals who are more self-aware of their cognitive decline, is very humbling and remarkable.
Bryan: I was surprised to see the enthusiasm of our participants for our activities. From our first session we were able to engage most of participants and their enjoyment shows at the end of our sessions. This observation has been consistent through our sessions. I am truly grateful for the enthusiasm and enjoyment of our participants, as this illustrates that we are having some impact in the community we chose to serve.
Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?
Gerard: The core belief system of the Schweitzer Fellowship pertaining to service and the innate desire to improve the lives of those in our community is among one of the largest driving forces that led me to pursue a career in medicine and similarly has led me to pursue acceptance into the Schweitzer Fellowship program. As a medical student it is all too easy to fall into the grind of lectures and preparation for exams and forget why we started this whole journey in the first place.
Bryan: I would never have imagined that as a second year medical student I would have had the opportunity to co-lead a service project for a patient population that I seek to work with professionally. The various trainings, discussions with other Fellows, guidance, and overall structure of the Schweitzer Fellowship fostered the development of our Brain Fitness Program, and the Schweitzer Fellowship has provided me with a set of skills that will be useful in my career in developing future service projects.
Click here to learn more about the North Carolina 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.