Putting Feet to the Street to Address Health Disparities

Kristen Obiakor and Katie Fruin, two second-year Rush Medical College students, share more than a desire to become doctors. Both women, born in the Midwest, have been shaped by the experiences of their immigrant parents and want to address the hard-hitting issues affecting underserved communities like those on Chicago’s West Side.

As recipients of the Rush Medical College Summer Research Fellowship, which is supported partly by the Rush Medical College Alumni Association, these women stepped outside of Rush and into nearby West Side neighborhoods to engage community members, local businesses and Rush employees,  organizing initiatives to improve the health and well-being of Rush neighbors and neighborhoods. Putting their feet to the street and using walking and running events to achieve their goals, Obiakor and Fruin literally hit the pavement to make a difference.

To learn more about what inspires them with respect to their community work, we talked to Fruin, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, and Obiakor, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a master’s degree in medical physiology from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Below they discuss what influenced their world view as well as the community projects they helped lead this past year.

First, what brought you to Rush?

Katie Fruin: I grew up just a few blocks away from Rush and have always known Rush as an institution that’s not afraid to be bold and do things differently — just look at the butterfly tower! So, when I learned of Rush’s renewed commitment to Chicago’s West Side, I jumped at the opportunity to marry my love of medicine with my love for my community.

Kristen Obiakor: Unlike Katie, I did not grow up down the street from Rush, but I knew that I needed to attend a medical school that had the same type of dedication to community engagement and service that I had.  Rush’s mission to serve its community aligns with my passion to serve our most vulnerable populations.

Why is working in underserved communities important to you?

Fruin: My mother’s experience as a refugee from Uganda has been a big influence. Overnight my mom’s family lost everything, but my mom emphasized to me that the inequities that led to the coup were generations in the making. Growing up in Chicago, I have always felt an urgency to understand why the inequities burdening our communities persist and how we can work together to dismantle them. For my mom, home was a place she could not go back to. So for me as a medical student at Rush working with community and academic partners to make my home a more just and equitable place is an incredible opportunity. 

Obiakor: My parents’ childhood experiences — my mother is from Jamaica and my father is from Nigeria — were also incredibly influential. Because of them, I have always understood the importance of access to health care. My parents came to the United States for a better life for themselves, and with one doctorate and three master’s degrees between them, they achieved that. However, they never shied away from sharing with us stories from their past and how important it is to give back as you move forward.

I grew up knowing that, in the face of many hardships around the globe, I was extremely privileged and had a responsibility to give back. In my mind, we shouldn’t hold back the unique abilities we have to offer; we shouldn’t hold back in understanding perspectives of diverse populations or the social determinants of health within the communities that surround us. I want to live in a world where health and equity are nonexclusive. I believe in our ability to one day achieve that.

You both were awarded the Rush Medical College Summer Research Fellowship. Tell us a little bit about that fellowship.

Obiakor: The fellowship is a six-week program that offers an amazing opportunity for medical students like Katie and I to work with Rush faculty on projects that interest and excite us. It was such an immense honor to be awarded the fellowship and be able to dedicate our summer to community service projects that we are passionate about.

Fruin: We had to submit our applications in the style of a National Institutes of Health grant proposal, which was one my favorite aspects of the fellowship. I had never written a grant proposal before, but our fellowship advisor Dr. Maureen Richards walked us through each component. The process pushed me to design research objectives and a strategy that built on evidence synthesized from medical, public health, sociology and economics research. My capstone adviser, Dr. Raj Shah, helped me iterate my design, and I will continue to build on my work from the fellowship throughout my capstone project.

Describe the community-service projects you helped plan.

Obiakor: My project is called Westside Walk to Wellness: Walk With a Doc, a community-based health initiative that encourages community members to walk together to promote increased physical activity and wellness. Knowing that Dr. David Ansell is a leader in the field of health equity and actually one of the influential people who helped fuel my decision to come to Rush, I asked him how I could strategize to reduce health disparity in our communities this summer. I should not have been surprised to know that he already had some thoughts. He told me about the health care disparities seen within Garfield Park, one of the communities Rush serves, and the conversations he’s had with Rev. Marshall Hatch, an influential pastor and community leader. They had been discussing strategies for health initiatives within Garfield Park for some time, so it was such an honor to help this vision come to life through my fellowship.

With the continued mentorship and support of Dr. Ansell, Dr. Sheila Dugan, Robin Pratts, and in partnership with the Reverend and other community members, we had an amazing team of passionate influencers who helped get the initiative off the ground. The community-walking program was held every Saturday morning for eight weeks this past summer. Participants gathered in front of Reverend Hatch’s church, New Mount Missionary Baptist Church, to hear brief health tips from a physician at Rush before walking through the Garfield Park neighborhood.

We selected topics that catered to community needs, often having doctors and health care providers of color as our speakers. While the talks were educational, they also showed the youth that they too can aspire to these kinds of health care careers. Also, Chicago police officers of the district joined in the walks, as well as escorted us in their vehicles.

And what about your project, Katie?

Fruin: The Tour de West Side is a campaign to promote Rush participation in the Austin, Little Village, Garfield Park, Pilsen and North Lawndale 5K walk/runs. The idea came out of my work with the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s Economic Development Committee. Members shared that Lawndale’s most pressing economic need is a positive marketing campaign. Lawndale has new businesses, museums and cultural assets that many, both within and outside the community, know nothing about. In fact, the City’s tourism website doesn’t even list neighborhoods with predominantly Hispanic or African-American residents as places to visit. And that got me thinking.

What if Chicago’s disparate health outcomes aren’t determined by distance, but rather, by destination? Maybe marketing is an overlooked structural determinant of health and that’s why the neighborhoods the City promotes have better health and economic outcomes.

A few years ago, I participated in the Lawndale 5K. The streets were flooded with people and I saw the vibrancy that can exist when we show up for communities we might otherwise drive through. With that in mind, we asked Rush students and employees to join us for the West Side 5Ks, and about 500 Rush students, employees, and their family and friends participated in one or more 5Ks. We created neighborhood guides highlighting local places recommended by Rush employees who live in each neighborhood and who were engaged in the campaign. We were excited to find out that most participants came to a neighborhood they had not visited during the past six months – suggesting that promoting community events can diversify local tourism patterns and potentially have a catalytic economic impact.

What are your greatest takeaways from these projects?

Obiakor: It was just so amazing to see everyone come together in such a visible way. With over 100 participants, the walk was more than a health initiative. We created so many positive relationships —among faith organizations, community members, health care providers and police officers — we built camaraderie, which was incredible to see first-hand. By building on and nurturing these supportive and trusting community relationships, I think we can begin to lessen health inequities. In the words of a community member, “a movement began in Garfield Park this summer” — we want to keep it going for years to come.

Also, to be able to work with our project mentors, Dr. Ansell and Dr. Dugan — both leaders in their fields and passionate patient advocates — was simply inspiring. They embody values I wish to uphold as a physician, and I am grateful to have them as mentors and role models.

Fruin: I loved learning from our patient navigators, social workers, business professionals, lawyers, marketing team and the trailblazing community leaders who took us under their wings. Dr. Shah says that if you can do a project by yourself, you’re not thinking big enough. So, it’s pretty amazing that as medical students at Rush we’ve had the opportunity to work with such an encouraging group of partners to tackle big issues. And to echo Kristen, we could not have done it without Dr. Ansell and Dr. Dugan’s enthusiastic support every step of the way — we hope to be just like them when we’re physicians!