Poverty Studies Deepened Passion for Holistic Healthcare to Underserved

By Allison Behrndt

Ms. Allison Behrndt is currently a MS Candidate (2015) in Medical Physiology at Case Western Reserve University. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2014 with a degree in Psychology and Pre-Health Studies and a minor in Poverty Studies.

Allison Behrendt (Notre Dame 2014) interned at Rockbridge Area Health Clinic and is earning an advanced degree in Medical Physiology .

Allison Behrendt (Notre Dame 2014) interned at Rockbridge Area Health Clinic and is earning an advanced degree in Medical Physiology .


A middle aged woman sat in front of me with a worn look on her face. Her hair was unruly, her skin was tan, and her hands were dirty. “How are you today? It’s pretty hot outside,” I said. It was the middle of the summer, and I was used to seeing patients come to the Rockbridge Area Health Center tired from working in the hot July weather. The Rockbridge Area Health Center (RAHC) provides comprehensive primary, preventive, and enabling health services to insured and uninsured members of the rural community of Lexington, Virginia.

As the Shepherd intern at RAHC, I was primarily responsible for caring for patients by taking vital signs and identifying their chief complaints. However, this woman didn’t seem interested in talking to me or answering my medical questions. Instead, she just said, “I’ve never seen you around here before.” I explained that I was a summer intern, and I was from St. Louis. “St. Louis!” she enthusiastically exclaimed. It turned out that she had lived in East St. Louis. While this woman was from East St. Louis, a neighborhood infamous for its crime and poverty, and I was from the suburbs, we bonded over our love for our city. Originally worn out from the hot sun, she became much more relaxed, cheerful, and conversational. Time flew by unnoticed as she and I shared our experiences. Perhaps more importantly, as she became more comfortable and trusting, she also began to open up and answer the medical questions that she previously ignored.

Many patients put themselves in a vulnerable position, exhibiting trust by seeking care. My summer in rural Virginia serving at the Center showed me the importance of providing compassionate care, especially to patients struggling with the challenge of living in poverty. I will always remember the patients I met. There were times when I called patients on the phone reminding them of their appointment for the next day, and they told me sadly that they had to miss their appointments because they did not have a car or they could not afford gas. In addition, many patients struggled to afford their healthcare costs. Patients counted out pennies in front of me to pay for their medications. There were other patients who came to the health center who needed someone to show them they cared in order for them to open up, such as the woman from St. Louis. By showing compassion to these people living in rural poverty, I believe that the staff members of RAHC and I not only improved the health of the patients, but also their lives. As a mere intern, I felt honored to provide them with healthcare.

My experience through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty Internship Program not only solidified my passion for becoming a physician, but also helped me realize how I can work to reduce health disparities through my career path. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I was a Psychology and Pre-Health Studies major with a Poverty Studies minor. Through my Poverty Studies classes and seminars, I learned about the challenges that people in poverty face with accessing healthcare. My Shepherd internship allowed me to witness firsthand these struggles by caring for patients.

After my summer internship, I further investigated how I can become a physician that helps vulnerable patient populations. For my Poverty Studies Senior Capstone group project, my fellow classmates and I researched medically underserved areas and programs for physicians working in such areas. With the goal of motivating more pre-health students to serve in medically underserved areas in the United States, we created a website for students to learn how they can integrate helping the medically underserved into their career. In addition, I served as a medical intern at a health center in South Bend, Indiana, caring for patients living in urban poverty.

Currently, I am a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University in the Medical Physiology program. As a graduate student, I have continued to serve vulnerable populations. I served in Honduras on a Public Health Brigade where I helped implement sustainable projects to develop the infrastructure of a village in rural Honduras. In addition, I volunteer at University Hospitals in a program that focuses on preventing delirium in elderly patients. As I apply to medical school, I have focused on medical programs that are committed to educating physicians to work in underserved areas in the future. My passion for providing compassionate care deepened through my Shepherd internship, and I became inspired to dedicate myself to a life of service as a primary care physician for the medically underserved.

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