How One Medical Student Decided to #FacePoverty

uvmmedicine blogger Molly Markowitz '18
uvmmedicine blogger Molly Markowitz ’18

This post originally appeared on the American Academy of Pediatrics Voices blog and is reprinted here with permission.

As a third-year medical student driving to my preceptor’s office each morning, a 15-minute commute takes me through the revitalized old mill-town of Winooski, Vermont, and then past fields filled with grazing Holstein cows and groves of maples turning brilliant shades of red, orange and gold. Sounds like typical, picturesque Vermont? Yes, but if you look closer, it’s more than that.

One morning in September, when traffic was particularly bad, I found myself idling next to the Winooski public high school. At the driveway entrance was a large sign proclaiming “Welcome Back!” The message then disappeared and was replaced by words in many different languages stating what I can only assume was the same message. As I looked at the sign, a smile started to spread across my face. Refugee or new American families from countries such as Bhutan, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and many others, have been settling in the Burlington-Winooski area for many years and making it the most diverse municipality in northern New England. On my morning drive, I also pass by young girls wearing brightly colored hijab waiting for the school bus, several Asian and African markets, and the Islamic Community Center of Vermont.

Earlier this year, as I strategized about how to help my fellow medical students #FACEPoverty, as part of a national campaign organized by the AAP Section on Pediatric Trainees, I knew I wanted to partner with the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. I grew-up in a small rural town in Maine where I saw first-hand how WIC plays a critical role in the lives of impoverished families. So I went to the local WIC leadership in Burlington and asked how we could help. They described how new American families struggled with using the Vermont eWIC card, which functions like a limited debit card for buying food. With the help of WIC, I decided to conduct grocery store tours to work one-on-one with new American families to help them identify the type of foods they could purchase with their eWic card. I arranged for interpreters to be present to overcome any language barriers.

As I began planning, I soon realized that recruiting families to participate in the tours would be my greatest challenge. As a busy medical student, I had spent only a limited amount of time connecting with the Burlington community outside of the medical center. I decided that it was time to forge out on foot in order to meet with families and community leaders. With 300 flyers in hand, I spent several afternoons driving and walking around Burlington, posting flyers in physician offices, daycares, schools, gas stations, subsidized housing facilities, local businesses, and community and teen centers.

On one such afternoon, I was visiting local businesses in the old north end of Burlington when a torrential downpour forced me to dash into a corner market. Once inside, I was surprised to find a store filled with a crowd of about 20 men, women, and children all staring at me. It appeared that I was not the only one sheltering from the rain. I smiled, greeted the crowd enthusiastically, and weaved my way towards the counter. At the counter, an elderly man cautiously greeted me in words I could not understand; he was speaking Nepali. I held up the flyers, tried to explain about the tours, and asked if I could hang one in the shop’s window.

As I nervously jabbered away, I realized the store had gone silent and the crowd of people had joined me at the counter. Everyone was trying to understand what I was saying. The man at the counter looked understandably skeptical and was clearly confused by my request. He then called for a young high-school-aged girl to step forward. She greeted me in English and introduced the man behind the counter as her uncle and shop owner. As the niece translated my explanation and request, a bright smile lit up the shop owner’s face and he began to nod. He then started to direct the crowd in Nepali, and before I knew it, everyone was trying to help me hang the flyers not only in the windows, but on the front door of the shop, in the most auspicious locations. At one point, there were at least five people, 10 helping hands, all trying to help me hang up a single flyer. The shop owner proclaimed proudly that he would happily display the flyers in his shop as it was a program which helped his community. A week later, I made sure to return to the shop with flyers translated into Nepali.

The grocery store tours were a great success. Medical students, residents, attendings, interpreters, and new American families all came together to participate. However, looking back, it really was the planning process which has stayed with me. I learned so much more about the critical support systems which help struggling families. Now, when working with families in clinic, I can speak to them from a place of personal experience and knowledge of the system which is truly invaluable. Perhaps even more importantly, I have come to further appreciate how communication really is the key to making a connection with people. Both through the shop owner’s niece and the interpreters in the grocery store, I was able to form a communication bridge. I saw confusion and frustration turn into excitement and understanding.

As a future physician, who aspires to work with children and families, I have been inspired to assure that my healthcare community not only values this communication bridge, but also has the resources in place to connect with non-English speaking patients. This includes in-person interpretation, remote-video interpretation, or health information which is translated into a preferred a language. Supporting programs that help lift children and families out of poverty is essential, but so is making sure the programs can be understood and utilized by those who need them.

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