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Lasting Lessons from the Delta

By Katie Jarrell

Ms. Jarrell is currently a second-year pharmacy student at West Virginia University School of Pharmacy. Upon graduation in 2018, she hopes to become a community pharmacist, with an emphasis on patient counseling in her career. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with a Bachelors of Science in Biochemistry and a Bachelors of Arts in German Language.

"This is the exact moment when I realized that each patient is an individual with a specific set of experiences and stories to tell, with family and friends who depend on them," writes Jarrell (W&L 14).

“This is the exact moment when I realized that each patient is an individual with a specific set of experiences and stories to tell, with family and friends who depend on them,” writes Jarrell (W&L 14).

Patients, uniformed military members, and staff of UAMS: East hurried in all directions. I heard shouted questions, complaints, and the occasional bit of laughter as patients who had been waiting in line for hours grew weary. After walking yet another patient to the growing waiting area, I was rushing back to my designated station when I noticed him out of the corner of my eye – a small, elderly man wearing light blue pants and a white t-shirt, holding a box of chocolate chip cookies along with his chart. As I caught his eye he gave me a big, warm smile, so I walked over to say hello and to assure him that he would be able to see the physician shortly. His mouth was filled with gauze, after seeing the dentist on site, and he answered my greeting with another smile and a nod. Some of the patients around him noticed his cookies and began to tease him, telling him to hold onto them tightly because they were all growing tired and hungry. Again, he smiled and nodded in response. This became a sort of inside joke between us as the morning turned into the afternoon, and each time I walked by I found myself glancing at this box of cookies and wondering of their fate. As the man made it into the nurse practitioner’s office, the last stop before the physician, we realized he had been waiting unnecessarily for hours; his chart only indicated a need to see the dentist. I felt terrible as we explained to him that he was free to go, but again he simply smiled warmly, nodded, and walked off.

I called my mom that evening, as I did most evenings of my summer spent in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, to fill her in on the day’s events. The past week had been particularly exciting, since we were in the middle of a medical mission at UAMS: East, and military men and women from all over the United States were on site providing free medical care to members of the community. As I filled her in on the days events, I began to tell her of the man with the cookies and of our inside joke. She asked if he was with a family member or friend, and I recalled that he was alone. My mind began to wander and I though of this man’s life story. Did he have a big family to spend time with? Who normally helped him with his medical care? Did he have family, friends, or neighbors that checked in to make sure he was okay? Why did he have those cookies anyway? As I thought of these questions, I began to cry, as I still do when I think of this man. This is the exact moment when I realized that each patient is an individual with a specific set of experiences and stories to tell, with family and friends who depend on them, and that I may be encountering them at a time when they are incredibly fearful and vulnerable.

It is rare to experience a true “Ah ha!” moment in life, but that is exactly what the Shepherd program afforded me as I completed my internship at UAMS: East. I had always hoped to work in healthcare. I had grown up with an interest in the sciences and an understanding that a career in healthcare was practical and offered security. When asked what my future aspirations were, I always said to be a doctor, to help others. Yet my experience in the delta taught me that my hopes to become a physician were as vaguely founded as my understanding of poverty policy prior to taking Poverty 101. I frequently envisioned myself, clad in scrubs and a white coat, stethoscope draped around my neck, helping faceless, nameless people. I was doing good, giving back, and helping others – much like the cast of ER or Grey’s Anatomy. The patients I envisioned always survived the most horrific of circumstances, and I usually managed to save the day, but I never connected this desire to wear scrubs to a tangible source of inspiration. Lacking inspiration, my biochemistry coursework seemed harder, the prospect of medical school seemed daunting, and I assumed I was not meant for a career in healthcare.

Attending Washington and Lee presented the unique opportunity to routinely shift my focus away from demanding science courses. These times of refocus not only granted some relief from semesters that were entirely science driven, but also allowed me to consider how my biochemistry coursework was relevant beyond the scope of a laboratory. I often took courses within the Poverty and Human Capabilities Studies department during these times. Courses like Poverty 101 and 102 provided invaluable preparation for my internship in Arkansas. They allowed me to learn not only about the policies that shape much of the healthcare climate, but afforded the opportunity to work with and alongside the people of Rockbridge County at the local free clinic. My biochemistry coursework provided an understanding of the complexities of various ailments, while my poverty coursework granted an understanding of the provision of healthcare to underserved, vulnerable populations. However, neither of these programs of study could provide the “Ah ha!” inspiration that I found in Arkansas and that would shape my future professional pursuits.

My experience at UAMS: East, a healthcare education center in the delta region of Arkansas, showed me that my long-held desire to work in healthcare and the inspiration I needed were not opposites but were actually one and the same: people. I had turned my hopes into faceless patients with unnamed diseases, but my motivation was anything but faceless. In fact, the kind face of a patient ultimately showed me that my inspiration flows from being able to look at a person and feel their hopes, their strength, and their resilience. Healthcare is not effective because of groundbreaking treatment options or new innovations, but because of the dedicated people who provide care to individual patients. There are people on both sides of the equation – providers with talent, compassion, and the desire to help on one side and patients with aspirations, fears, and the desire to be well on the other.

Living and working in Helena-West Helena allowed me to see that I needed to be involved in a highly communicative part of healthcare, one that would allow me to see and connect with patients regularly. Although I had decided that medicine might not be for me, an opportunity that I encountered through the Shepherd program was determined to prove me wrong. For that reason, I decided within the same week of meeting the man with the cookies to apply to pharmacy school. To my delight, I was accepted into West Virginia University School of Pharmacy’s Class of 2018. Within the first month of school we were assigned patient counseling sessions and the first summer of my education allowed me to regularly meet and discuss treatment options with diabetic patients in my community – I had found my true calling. I owe a lot to the man in light blue pants, whose name I ironically do not know, but I owe even more to the Shepherd program, which gave me the opportunity to meet him.


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