Schweitzer Fellows for Life Jessie Evangelista and Janet Trang created a program pairing families with a baby in neonatal intensive care with a family that had successfully brought home a baby after a stay in neonatal intensive care. Evangelista and Trang, both students at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, partnered with the Fletcher Allen Health Center for their project. Evangelista shared some of what she learned through the experience with Beyond Boulders.

Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
A: I had my first exposure to babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) when I was in grammar school. The school bus used to drop my sister and me off at the hospital where my mother worked. Without fail, I would ask my mom to take us to see the babies in the NICU after work. A few years ago, I began volunteering as a cuddler at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital (MSCHONY) in New York City. With over 70 babies in the NICU at any given time, there was always at least one baby that needed someone to hold them, sing to them, or read them a bedtime story. While volunteering at MSCHONY, I had the opportunity to hold babies born more than 18 weeks early and weighing less than a pound at birth. When I started medical school at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in August 2011, I immediately asked how I could get involved in the NICU, and within two months I was a cuddler. When Janet and I were developing this project, I wanted to merge the passion that I have for working with babies with the genuine need that I saw in the babies and families in the NICU. Reading through the projects that all of the Schweitzer Fellows have developed, it is easy to see that life is filled with struggles. With all that life can throw at us, nothing compares to coming into this world already at a disadvantage. The babies that Janet and I worked with were struggling just to breathe, eat, and maintain their temperature. Our Schweitzer Fellowship has been an incredibly humbling experience for me. It reminds me each and every day that something as simple as my time can make a world of difference.

Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
A: Janet and I created a Parent Matching Program to pair NICU graduate families to current NICU families and a medical student Cuddling Program. While the focus of this Schweitzer Fellowship is the immediate implementation these two programs, in the future, we will be relying on current first year medical students and the NICU staff to carry on and manage these programs. The hope is that years down the road, families currently being mentored will have become mentors themselves, and that their mentees will go on to do the same.

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: My gut reaction to this question was accessibility and affordability of healthcare. I think, however, that there is another issue at hand that was summed up well by Dr. Ariel Pablos, Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, when she said, “Too often the global health community has focused on disease- and population-specific programs, rather than on strengthening health systems as a whole. Such neglect has led to fragmentation and inequitable financing for general health services.” While there are incredible programs based on the treatment of specific diseases and populations, there is a need for a more widespread approach to healthcare. I believe that a reorganization and reallocation of our existing resources across the entire healthcare community would be more beneficial than having many small groups, all trying to tackle different diseases and problems individually.

Q: What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
A: Most people are surprised to hear that I have volunteered close to 1,500 hours in Neonatal Intensive Care Units and nearly 400 hours since beginning medical school. What I find most surprising, however, is that the babies and families I worked with gave more to me than I could ever give them. In the first two years of medical school, it is easy to get caught up in the everyday stresses, but working with premature babies is a constant reminder of why I ever wanted to be a doctor in the first place.

Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?
A: I had an incredible experience as a Schweitzer Fellow. This has been largely due to the constant inspiration and support of The Vermont and New Hampshire Schweitzer Fellows. To me, being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life means that I will have an opportunity to impact my peers and successors, not just on my own, but as part of a larger entity.

Click here to learn more about the New Hampshire/Vermont 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.