Beginnings in Community Health

Monday, May 2, 2016

Alums recall how RCSIP experience helped shape their careers 

By Charlie Jolie

While teaching a community health course at Rush Medical College in the late 1980s, Edward Eckenfels, MD, issued a challenge to his students. He called on them to more directly experience the “real world” patients lived in and “not the taken for granted one that insulates those who function exclusively inside the academic medical center,” as he described the distinction in his 2008 memoir Doctors Serving People. 

Eckenfels, now a professor emeritus of preventive medicine, proposed a course for small groups of students who would visit several nearby clinics instead of reading textbooks and discuss their observations instead taking tests. After the course ended, several students wanted these community-based opportunities to remain a part of the college’s medical education, and in 1991, they formed the Rush Community Services Initiative Program

In the 25 years since then, RCSIP, as it’s commonly known, has grown to include 26 volunteer programs through which Rush University students provide health care, education and career development services to thousands of people in the neighborhoods surrounding Rush University Medical Center. In 2015, more than 2,300 students volunteered more than 9,000 hours supervised by Rush faculty, clinicians and staff. 

As RCSIP celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, physicians who volunteered through the program recall how it helped shape their medical careers, sharpen their communication skills and develop the leadership abilities they needed to be advocates for community health.

‘A few days in RCSIP and I never looked back’

Liza Ortiz, MD, had planned a career in orthopedics and enrolled in Rush Medical College because of Rush’s renowned orthopedics program. Volunteering in a RCSIP clinic, however, convinced her that she could help more people in more ways.

“Through RCSIP, I saw the impact I could have in community health,” Ortiz says. “When you are treating an inpatient in a controlled setting, you’re limited in what you can do. But in people’s homes and communities, you understand all the reasons why they might be sick.”

She now shapes and leads community health efforts as the director of public health for northern California’s Tuolumne County,  which borders Yosemite National Park. 

‘Once we get their attention, we can deliver the message’

Gameli DeKayie-Amenu, MD, is the associate emergency department medical director at Advocate South Suburban Hospital but perhaps better known as half of Besties MD, a digital media endeavor that provides health information aimed at young women. She and lifelong friend Chantale Stephens-Archer, MD, use their website and YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms  to share what DeKayie-Amenu, calls “health education on a relatable and sisterly level.” 

She credits volunteering at RCSIP health clinics while a Rush medical student for sharpening her ability to communicate and not just deliver, health care information.

Recent Besties MD posts about the dangers of drinking alcohol in excess, for example, didn’t lead with damage caused to internal organs. Instead, they focused on alcohol’s “effects on hair, skin, nails and weight, all topics that usually grab the attention of the women in our target audience,” DeKayie-Amenu says. She believe that once they have people’s attention, they can help their audience better understand diseases processes “and empower a population that more often than not doesn’t feel empowered when it comes to many aspects of their lives.” 

RCSIP results help put young leader in charge

Aaron Tabor, MD, knew since age 8 that he wanted to pursue humanitarian causes and medicine. The volunteer opportunities through RCSIP attracted him to Rush Medical College, and the experience he gained as a volunteer at settings like the Franciscan House of Mary & Joseph Clinic, the Medical Mobile Van and Haymarket Clinic helped him develop the leadership and cross disciplinary experience needed to push innovative community health efforts forward. 

Now an emergency medicine resident at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Tabor has drawn on his Rush experiences to advise fellow residents. When other first year residents proposed a series of community health-focused projects, “I was able to discuss specific approaches and structures that work and what barriers are likely,” he says. Emergency Department leaders took notice and asked Tabor to help design a heath equities committee focused on supporting resident-led efforts to better serve our underrepresented populations. 

During his final year at Rush, Tabor founded the not-for-profit organization Make a Change International, which raises funds to defray the cost of fellow students’ volunteer health service trips to developing countries. His effort earned him a 2015 Excellence in Public Health Award from the U.S. Public Health Service.

‘My most important class’

Peter DeGolia, MD, medical director for University Hospitals Center for Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care in Cleveland, is considered RCSIP’s first student leader. When Eckenfels’ community health students started planning the first volunteer effort in 1990, DeGolia was asked to lead them because he had extensive experience volunteering at settings like the St. Basil’s Free People’s Clinic in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. “I chose to attend Rush Medical College after sitting in on a course on social medicine taught by Professor Eckenfels,” DeGolia later wrote. “I was impressed that there was a course that encouraged medical students to look beyond the biophysical aspects of medicine and get them to understand the impact of culture and envirronment.” 

RCSIP allowed him and others to channel their altruism into operational and leadership skills that put ideals into practice. “We learned a great deal about collaboration, how to organize meetings, clarify thoughts and put concepts into practical application,” DeGolia notes.

While RCSIP students still do not get academic credit for their volunteer work, he considers “RCSIP as my most important class” in medical school.