Med Student Honored for Social Activism

A few years after 9/11, Kristen Pallok was enjoying a stroll and some down time from high school when a passenger in an approaching car rolled down a window and taunted her best friend, who is Muslim, for wearing a headscarf. The shock she felt stuck with her as she grew into an adult with a desire to pursue social justice.

Now Pallok has been recognized for her activism with an award named after a man who died on the day that led to the swell of anti-Muslim backlash that shamed her friend. The American Medical Student Association honored the fourth-year Rush Medical College student with the Paul Ambrose Outstanding Student Activist Award, which is given to one medical student in the nation each year in memory of the award’s namesake, a physician health activist who was on American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.

“Paul Ambrose was a phenomenal person who passed away very tragically, so I’m beyond honored to be recognized,” says Pallok, who is the first student from Rush to receive the award. “Sometimes you may not feel like you’re in a position of power to right a wrong, and that shock stays with you. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized you can stand up and say, ‘that’s not right,’ whether it’s for a friend, a patient or a whole community.”

Uncommon work on a common cause

Pallok, who is set to graduate this spring, has volunteered her time to community health initiatives both in the Chicago area and abroad. Most notably, her leadership was a pivotal part of an effort that in 2014 helped put legislation and policies in place that made Illinois the first state to identify a way to provide insurance coverage to undocumented immigrants for kidney transplants.

“Fighting health inequalities is not glamorous work. From the beginning you’re faced with a high likelihood of defeat,” says David Ansell, MD, MPH, senior vice president for Community Health Equity at Rush University Medical Center, and Pallok’s collaborator and mentor. “It takes a special person like Kristen who is willing to persist through the grind, hours and hours of meetings, demonstrations, negotiations, setbacks — never relenting until the goal is met.”

It was a chance meeting in 2012 with Ansell in an elevator that led to Pallok’s work on the immigration law. She was a volunteer at Rush and exploring the idea of going to medical school when she struck up a conversation with Ansell. It wasn’t long before the two found they shared many of the same ideas about social justice.

Pallok, who enrolled at Rush in 2014, partnered with Ansell and Marieli Guzman, who is now a fourth-year student at Rush Medical College, to listen to and work with undocumented community members seeking transplants. Pallok, Guzman and Ansell collaborated with transplant centers, the Gift of Hope and Illinois politicians to identify ways to allow undocumented immigrants to get access to the wait list for organ transplants.

In addition, the group’s work with transplant centers and the community resulted in other solutions that have resulted in more than 75 undocumented patients receiving organ transplants in Chicago who would never have received them otherwise.

“Some of it is luck that has led me to this point,” Pallok says. “But when you meet someone, and you have similar beliefs and they’re willing to talk — like Dr. Ansell was — it opens up so many avenues. I would like to give that same opportunity to others in the future. A lot of people have great ideas, and they can do some pretty amazing things if given the opportunity.”

Agent for change

Pallok provided research, editing and publishing support on Ansell’s newest book, The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, which was published in 2017. The book explores inequality in Chicago and how it leads to a decreased life expectancy for some groups.

She also participates with the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, which looks at ways to reduce the disproportionate breast cancer mortality rate of African-American women in Chicago, and publicly advocated for a recently opened, much-needed trauma care center on Chicago’s South Side.

“Most people don’t take the time to notice an inequity problem,” Ansell says. “Even if they do notice, they may not make the effort to overcome the deeply entrenched attitudes and systems that perpetuate inequities. Kristen’s perseverance and grit are exemplary.”

‘You need a team’

Pallok expects to pursue internal medicine for her residency training and continue her social justice work even when she’s a practicing physician. She’ll take with her a formula for successful community outreach she crafted while reflecting on her past work.

“You need a few things to achieve change: a compelling story, data based on research and the willingness to take action,” she says. “It can be impossible to do it alone, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for inaction. You have to speak up. And you need a team — people who are willing to listen.”