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The Medically Underserved: A Lesson in Humility

By Christopher Martin Blackwell

Mr. Blackwell graduated from Washington and Lee University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability. After graduation, Christopher worked as a Clinical Research Coordinator at the University of Virginia Cancer Center. He is now a first-year medical student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

"Until you immerse yourself in the problem that is poverty, you cannot begin to understand it," writes Chris Blackwell (W&L), a medical student at Marshall University.

“Until you immerse yourself in the problem that is poverty, you cannot begin to understand it,” writes Chris Blackwell (W&L), a medical student at Marshall University.

The eager pre-med will tell you to ace your Biology, Chemistry, and Physics courses and score well on your MCAT to be a competitive applicant for medical school. The seasoned physician will tell you to follow your passion for medicine, and establish a moral compass before even considering a career in medicine. The road is too long and arduous to not first understand your primary role as an advocate for the indigent. The disconnect between the green pre-med and the established physician can be attributed, in part, to the lack of social and moral development that occurs on campuses nationwide. Fortunately for me, the Shepherd Poverty Program and poverty studies helped develop my moral compass, and taught me more than any textbook ever will.

My first introduction to the Shepherd Program came in my third-year, when I enrolled in both Poverty 101, a course that taught the fundamentals of the social welfare state, and Poverty 102, a course that allowed me to volunteer in the community and reflect on my experience. Naturally, I volunteered at the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic, where I took a medical history on patients before they saw the physicians.

I was humbled by the very first patient I met. He had a history of diabetes, hypertension, depression, obesity, and coronary artery disease, to name a few. The humbling, and honestly depressing, part of this experience was that the patient hadn’t seen a physician in five years. How could someone with such an extensive list of medical conditions not have monthly doctor’s appointments? Much to my surprise, nearly every patient that came into the clinic that night, and in the months following, had a similar story.

In class the next day I reflected on the experience, and the professor challenged me to see the issue more broadly, nationally, globally even. We have all talked about it, we all have our own preconceptions on how to fix it, but until you immerse yourself in the problem that is poverty, you cannot begin to understand it. Poverty 102 forced me into the clinic, and into peoples’ lives, and it forced me to face the difficult reality that people in my own community struggle. Up to that point I had done very little to give back. I was humbled.

Next, the Shepherd Poverty Program allowed me the opportunity to spend two-months in the Outback of Australia, working in a remote clinic in the Aboriginal Community of Looma. The Aboriginal community of Looma was filled with some of the most kind, passionate, and welcoming people I have ever met. Sadly, the life expectancy of the Aboriginal people is a decade below the non-Indigenous Australian.

Working in the remote clinic, I gained an entirely new perspective on poverty. The nearest hospital was 3 hours down a dirt road, and the clinic was ill-prepared to handle any medical emergency. Unfortunately, I was involved in one such medical emergency where a patient had a stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body and was experiencing symptoms of tachycardia. Regrettably, there were neither trained physicians nor proper medications to stabilize this patient. Luckily, after a less than serene ambulance ride, the patient received the care she needed. The patient recovered well, but I was forever changed; I had a far-reaching paradigm shift.

I recognized that poverty is more than your financial statements. Poverty includes a person’s ability to function in society, her soft skills, her health, her geographic location, and her literacy. As I spoke with the professor about this revelation, he nodded, smiled, and went on with his day. He knew that my experience and the courses had helped me mold my moral compass and understand poverty on a more global level.

Once again, I was humbled. Humbled by the fact that this patient did not have access to care, even if she could afford it. Humbled by the idea that healthcare is a finite resource, reserved for a select few. Humbled by the realization that my teachers and my peers knew this experience would forever shape my understanding of medicine and poverty. As I completed my capstone seminar and research paper, I felt socially prepared and morally grounded to begin my career in medicine. I also knew that I had much more to learn, and I am taking that thirst for knowledge and drive to serve the indigent with me to medical school.


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