ECU medical, dental students selected as NC Schweitzer Fellows

Eight East Carolina University medical and dental students have been named to the 2023-24 class of the North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (NCASF) program.

Eight students from East Carolina University’s medical and dental schools have been named N.C. Schweitzer Fellows and will complete projects addressing health disparities in their communities. (Contributed photos)

Two students from the School of Dental Medicine and six students from the Brody School of Medicine will spend the next year working on projects that address social factors that impact health and health care. They are part of a class of 29 North Carolina graduate students representing medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, public health and law.

“Schweitzer Fellows are not given a project or told to address a specific health need,” said Barbara Heffner, executive director of the N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. “They follow their passion and the needs of the community to develop innovative approaches which fill gaps in our health care system.”

Schweitzer Fellows develop and implement service projects that address the root causes of health disparities in under-resourced communities, while also fulfilling their academic responsibilities.

Each project is implemented in collaboration with a community-based organization. Schweitzer Fellowships include an intensive leadership component, with fellows working closely with community and academic mentors during their fellowship year.

The ECU Schweitzer Fellows are:

Miranda Freeman and Michael Burt, Brody School of Medicine

A.C. Reid Schweitzer Fellows
Academic Mentor: Rima Panchal
Site Mentor: Margaret Clifton
Site: Palliative care unit at ECU Health Medical Center and Service League of Greenville Inpatient Hospice

Freeman and Burt are developing an end-of-life companions volunteer program to provide compassionate end-of-life companionship to palliative care patients who do not have anyone able to visit them. Volunteers will receive basic inpatient and outpatient hospice training, participate in narrative medicine workshops and will become knowledgeable advocates for the role of palliative services in modern patient care.

Freeman, a fourth-year medical student and native of Eagle Springs, said her passion for the project comes from her father’s recent cancer diagnosis.

“I saw how incredibly important it is to have support and care during scary difficult moments in life,” she said. “End of life should not have to be something individuals go through on their own. This program aims at providing more support to those at the final stages of their lives.”

Burt, a fourth-year medical student from Williamston, said the project aims to bridge a gap for a vulnerable population that deserves support.

“One group of individuals who are often not appreciated in conversations about loneliness is those who are in hospice care,” he said. “There are unfortunately many people who find themselves alone as they approach the end of their lives, and we believe they deserve the option of compassionate companionship, outside of their health care team, during this time.”

Phoebe Jollay-Castelblanco and Francisco Reyes, Brody School of Medicine

Academic Mentor: Sravanthi Utpala
Site Mentor: Diannee Cardan Glenn
Site: ekiM for Change

Jollay-Castelblanco and Reyes are building a new student-led Narcan training program for Pitt, Craven and Jones counties. They are designing an educational initiative to train community members across the region in prevention, identification and treatment of overdose using Narcan administration. They are also working closely with ekiM for Change to tailor the trainings to best meet the needs of the highest risk populations while serving regularly in the organization’s harm reduction clinics.

“I’ve seen incredible harm reduction work being done in my home region of western North Carolina and the positive impact that it has across communities,” said Jollay-Castelblanco, a second-year medical student from Asheville. “ekiM for Change has been doing similar work in Pitt County, already supporting community members across the region and I would love to see our project support their continued growth and expand their reach.”

Reyes, a second-year medical student from Wilmington, served as an EMT before medical school and witnessed the effects of overdose.

“Much of the public believes that the only people affected by addiction are those that are down on their luck or have little to live for, but this could not be further from the truth,” he said. “We hope to continue the excellent harm reduction work they are doing here in Pitt County as well as expand harm reduction efforts to neighboring counties.”

Vaishnavi Siripurapu and Elisabeth “Ella” Whitfield, Brody School of Medicine

Academic Mentor: Lisa Moreno
Site Mentors: Hannah Florida, Lauren Sastre
Site: ECU Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Inpatient Unit

Siripurapu and Whitfield are launching a cardiovascular health intervention for patients at the ECU Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Unit focused on individualized goal setting, nutrition education, behavioral health and community support.

Siripurapu, a second-year medical student from Mooresville, said her passion for the project comes from watching her father’s diabetes journey.

“After following his journey and realizing the impact that chronic cardiovascular disease has on many people in my rural community,” she said, “I decided to pursue a project in order to address this unmet need that has manifested in my own life.”

Whitfield, a second-year medical student from Durham, said the project will address continuity in support from the hospital to home.

“During their hospital stay, patients are provided with structure, nutritional counseling and convenient healthy meals, therapy such as physical and occupational therapy, and support from hospital staff. However, upon discharge, this support structure is removed, leaving patients feeling isolated and powerless in their circumstances,” Whitfield said. “With the status quo, patients have a difficult time creating lasting change. We hope to ease this transition for CVD patients, and prevent future re-hospitalizations, by providing an abundance of supportive measures during this gap in care. We want to support individuals in a holistic way and help to empower them to feel confident in their ability to take charge of their own health journey.”

Ijeoma “I.J.” Okons and Kala Gause, School of Dental Medicine

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows
Academic Mentor: Taneet Ghuman
Site Mentor: Linda May
Site: ECU School of Dental Medicine and Public Health Department

Okons and Gause are educating underserved pregnant women on the importance of oral health and dental care through a partnership with Pitt County Health Department’s prenatal program. They will teaching oral hygiene workshops and creating a referral program from Pitt County Health Department to the ECU School of Dental Medicine to help patients establish a dental home.

Okons, a third-year dental student from Fayetteville, said the project stemmed from a need to focus on the challenges pregnancy can introduce during an already vulnerable time for a woman.

“We are coming from all sides to address this by directly accessing pregnant woman within on-going prenatal courses as well as educating OB-GYN providers on the importance of oral health during such a vulnerable time,” Okons said. “We hope to not only educate woman but also steer these brave women toward the caring hands of dental providers. It is during this time we can impact generational change and better the oral health not only for the mother but their child as well, which could effectively spread through the entire household and beyond.”

Gause, a third-year dental student from Durham, added that the project is geared toward addressing one of the most important areas of health for pregnant women.

“It is crucial that future dental professionals like me step up and use our dental knowledge to alleviate some part of their troubles and offer them the care and treatment they deserve,” Gause said. “Let’s empower them, ensuring they receive the proper dental care and treatment they need, allowing them to shine with renewed confidence and reclaim their sense of self amidst the journey of motherhood.”

The NCASF is funded through the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Delta Dental of North Carolina, Duke University School of Medicine, ECU Brody School of Medicine, North Carolina Area Health Education Centers, North Carolina Central University School of Graduate Studies, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative, UNC Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice, ECU Health, Wake Forest University Health Sciences and individual donors.

NCASF began in 1994 as a local chapter of the national nonprofit, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and has trained more than 600 leaders in health care. Nationally, more than 4,000 U.S Schweitzer Fellows have served individuals and communities in need and are continuing to shape health care policy and provide direct service.