New Orleans Schweitzer Fellow for Life Amir Shahien

New Orleans Schweitzer Fellow for Life Amir Shahien

Fellow for Life Amir Shahien spent most of the past year running from lecture to lecture, studying for tests, and completing the required work typical of the second-year of medical school. Still, the busy Louisiana State University School of Medicine student ran a successful project as a Schweitzer Fellow last year teaching basic nutritional concepts to young students at SciTech Academy in New Orleans. Shahien learned a lot through the process and has advice for prospective Fellows: Move forward—with great enthusiasm—on your project. “Young people with great ideas are often discouraged from identifying problems and forming solutions because of the false notion that someone has probably already addressed that concern and already developed a complete and satisfactory solution,” Shahien observes. Beyond Boulders recently talked with Shahien about the nutrition project and plans for its expansion this year.

Q: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
A: The idea of starting a nutrition education program at a local elementary school in New Orleans was a project several years in the making. I first got the idea while completing my master’s degree in cardiovascular epidemiology at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. For my degree thesis, I analyzed a survey administered to one of our local communities that measured attitudes and perceptions of body image, general health awareness, and health knowledge as they pertained to BMI and cardiovascular health. It was immediately apparent was that there was a real relationship between health knowledge and awareness and healthier lifestyle choices.

I originally envisioned my project as a formal curriculum presented by volunteers to K-2 grade students in a classroom setting. After further engaging our chosen school – listening to the input of teachers and administrators – I decided that a simplified, informal curriculum during lunch time which featured medical students sitting at the cafeteria tables with the K-2 graders would be more effective (see also: more fun and interactive!). This format was made even more appealing by our partnership with the school’s newly hired health foods vendor, Revolution Foods, which supplied the healthy food for lunch. It turned out to be an ideal synergy of theory and practice.

Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
A: I strongly believe the strength of this program lies in the increase in health awareness and knowledge during formative years that will lead to healthier lifestyle choices in the future. Outside of the context of nutrition education, I really enjoyed facilitating the interaction of medical students with the population that they are learning to serve outside of the hospital or clinic setting.

I believe that this project serves both parties equally well. It allows those medical students that have volunteered the satisfaction of having an immediate impact while they are working long term to develop a skill set in their chosen professional field (as well as getting them out of the classroom bubble – in which many first- and second-year students can grow too comfortable.) Additionally, it gives many elementary students first-hand evidence of what can happen if you take your education seriously and work to get into college and beyond. Hopefully, our weekly sessions have made a couple of elementary students aspire to a career in medicine.

I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm in which many of the LSU medical students have embraced and volunteered for this program. Luckily, I have been able to leverage some of that volunteering energy into future leadership for this program. Three rising second-year medical students at LSU New Orleans have decided to lead and expand the program during this upcoming academic year. Several additional elementary schools have expressed a desire to participate in our program, and we will be recruiting volunteers from the Schools of Nursing and Allied Health for additional volunteers, perspectives on health, and inter-professional collaboration.

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: As a medical student busy with working on mastering the physiological concepts of the body as well as cramming drug names, uses, side affects, contraindications, interactions (you get the idea…), I am often asked why I decided to invest time and energy into developing this nutritional education program. My family, friends, and many of my colleagues consider this project a digression, at times even a distraction, from the “hard sciences” of medical education.

The concepts that have been taught during this nutritional education program are deceptively simple, yet the multi-faceted and multi-layered issues of food management and consumption are some of the most challenging health issues of the future.

There must be a paradigm shift in our approach to nutrition. We must realize that in many ways food is medicine, or at least, for the vast majority of us, what we ingest is by far the greatest single influencer of our daily health. I am not advocating a formal “medicalization” of food – as a citizen of New Orleans, a city world-renowned for its local cuisine, there is nothing more unappealing than trying to classify something as time-honored or emotional as, say, my grandmother’s jambalaya as medicine (although adherence rates would skyrocket…)

Think about it, we eat multiple times a day – everyday, and there is no one that is exempt from this rule. I firmly believe that it is possible and essential to ingrain a “healthy” approach to food in our school-aged children, one that frames the innate drive that mandates our regular consumption of foods (the regular cravings for fats, salt, etc. – the same one that many of us are held captive by) with a more conscious approach to eating.

I am not espousing counting calories, but rather eating with purpose: carbohydrates for energy, protein for building and replenishing the structures of our bodies, and fat for essential metabolic processes and energy storage. These are extremely simple concepts – not at all different from the lesson plans that we have been teaching the K-2 inner-city kids at our local school, yet they are essential and too often ignored.

Q: What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
A: One of the greatest myths perpetuating our early lives is that there are existing, reliable, and validated systems in place for everything. Young people with great ideas are often discouraged from identifying problems and forming solutions because of the false notion that someone has probably already addressed that concern and already developed a complete and satisfactory solution. My experiences have taught me that this is usually not the case, and that many of the harder, complex issues, especially those facing resource-poor communities have been largely ignored. When I joined the Schweitzer Fellowship, I expected to meet a group of individuals dedicated to specific causes. After growing closer with my cohort; however, I discovered a group of public health servants unfazed by some of the most daunting challenges facing our society. The level of competency, benevolence, and conviction displayed by each of the Schweitzer Fellows in my cohort for a wide array of issues truly was astonishing.

Q: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?
A: Regardless of my chosen medical subspecialty, as a prospective health professional, increasing health awareness and promoting healthy behaviors will be a large part of my daily practice. Accordingly, I sought the Schweitzer Fellowship because I knew that it was more than a one-time project. I knew that participation in this group was also a great way to join a network of similarly motivated individuals that comprise the Schweitzer’s “Fellows for Life.”

The extra time spent completing both my project and the Fellowship-guided developmental series truly helped me grow as a leader, a team member, and an engaged citizen. In addition to my individual project, the opportunity to collaborate with other Schweitzer Fellows brought exposure to unique perspectives as well as a common concern and vision for the improved health of our communities.

I believe that my project will continue to show the importance of empowering positive behavior through health education and nutrition awareness. Perhaps more importantly, after my experience this past year with the Schweitzer Fellowship and exposure to a community of young health professionals dedicated to tackling the some of our most pressing health challenges, I remain confident about an ever-improving state of wellbeing for our society.

Click here to learn more about the New Orleans 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.