One of the aspects that attracted me to the Duke Physician Assistant Program was the program’s commitment to fostering an environment that encourages students to serve their community. This commitment was something I noticed immediately on my interview day while learning about various opportunities afforded by the program including the Underserved Community Scholar Program.
The focus of the scholarship program is to improve access to health care for the underserved as well as aid in the development of leadership and primary care team skills. I was fortunate enough to be granted this incredible opportunity and have completed five of my core rotations in a rural medically underserved community in Eastern North Carolina.
Serving the Snow Hill Latino population
On the night before my first day I was full of excitement and nervousness, having just moved in to my new home in Greenville, NC, 30 minutes from the Snow Hill clinic where I would be working. I could not stop thinking about the day ahead. I was grateful that my five-month venture started with a pediatrics rotation since my previous work experience was in pediatric nutrition.
I was ready to hit the ground running, and I did! Orientation lasted only one hour and then I was off to see my first tiny patient, a two-week old infant. I felt like I was not ready to complete a physical exam on an adult let alone an infant but my preceptor was extremely encouraging and wanted me to gain confidence working with a younger population.
Being of Latino descent I was glad to see my first patient and family was also Latino, and although I was nervous, I found comfort in the fact that the population I was helping reminded me of my family and where I grew up. Throughout my rotation I was able to help many Latino families because of the rich migrant community established in the area. These families live in the Snow Hill area from April through November working the fields, most notably tobacco and sweet potato farms. Because many of the patients were migrant workers I was able to learn extensively about common ailments related to farming.
‘Jacks of All Trades’
In the months that followed, I was able to see a plethora of patients from all walks of life, newborn to geriatric. I was amazed on a daily basis by the staff and providers’ ability to overcome obstacles such as limited resources, poor funding, lack of insurance, language and low literacy barriers, yet still provide patients with remarkable care.
And because the nearest hospital was at least 30 minutes away we had to be “Jacks of All Trades,” treating patients with minor lacerations to schizophrenia to pregnant women. I gained so much knowledge regarding the use of available resources and working with the entire health care team to provide the best care possible.
There were many times our patients did not have insurance and could not afford pricey diagnostic procedures such as CT scans. Although we knew the textbook answer for what the appropriate next step was we had to modify that based on the patient’s circumstances. The gratitude that the patients demonstrated to us is something I will never forget and is the reason why my passion has always been to work in primary care in underserved communities. There is no better feeling than knowing you helped someone in need and made a positive difference in their lives.
By far the most rewarding aspect of this experience was watching my patients’ progress. Completing my rotations in the same clinical site for five months allowed me to truly become involved in facilitating proactive change in their health. I was able to set nutrition, exercise and health goals and check in on them periodically. I was even able to provide prenatal care to women and then meet their babies after delivery for routine infant care.
This experience was challenging because of the amount of medical knowledge needed to provide care to diverse patients and the variety of diagnoses. I was pushed outside my comfort zone daily, but in the moments where I was able to help patients or watch their successes, those are the moments that truly outweigh any trials faced.