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UC medical students to host 'Committed to Community' virtual session July 28

Summer internships take a different turn in the midst of a pandemic

Maura Kopchak, a second-year University of Cincinnati medical student, heard the stories of how homeless families are coping in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kopchak is a volunteer for the Urban Health Project, a UC nonprofit, student-run organization that places medical students into summer internships at nonprofit health and social service organizations in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. She spent eight weeks with Bethany House Services, a Cincinnati organization that provides housing, education and assistance to homeless families and while adhering to social distancing and safety guidelines met with homeless residents serving as an impromptu case manager.

Staffers and many volunteers at Bethany House were either furloughed or not able to assist as a result of COVID-19. It meant Kopchak was much busier as an intern than she might have been during a typical summer. Bethany House can provide assistance and a place to reside temporarily for up to 50 families. 

During the summer 18  families were split between two apartment-style housing sites while residents (previously in communal living houses) were staying at local hotels as a result of the pandemic, says Kopchak.

“A lot of my time I go in and meet with clients and I try to observe good social distancing,” says Kopchak. “Everyone who comes into the shelter gets masks and then we give pamphlets on COVID regulations. A lot of it is onsite, but we do all staff meetings virtually and we meet with our community partners virtually. All of our work with clients is still face-to-face.”

Many organizations that provide resources for the region’s homeless population are either closed or operating at a reduced capacity making it particularly difficult for clients at Bethany House to get the resources that might typically be available, says Kopchak.

“It means more to them that they have face-to-face interaction and that’s part of my role,” she says.

Kopchak was one of 22 medical students at UC placed at 21 sites across the Tristate as part of the Urban Health Project. Her fellow medicals assisted varied populations in the region including groups experiencing disparities in healthcare, troubled youth, immigrants and others. Two medical students, Maddy VandenBrink and Eunice Agyapong, served as co-directors of the Urban Health Project.

The organization will host a virtual presentation, 2020 Committed to Community on Tuesday, July 28, starting at 5:30 p.m. Robert Neel, MD, associate professor of neurology and director of the Neurology Residency Program in the UC College of Medicine, will offer a keynote address. Neel is also director of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Clinic at UC Health.

Tessa Keiser, a second-year medical student, interned at First Step Home, a treatment facility for women with substance use disorders, catering especially to the needs of women who are pregnant or have young children. Keiser says she learned about the nature of addiction and witnessed the mental, physical and emotional struggles it creates for individuals in recovery.

“I believe that my internship has made me better prepared to provide empathetic and practical care for patients struggling with addiction in my future clinical practice,” explains Keiser.

Tessa Keiser, a medical student, is shown at her summer internship.

Tessa Keiser, a second-year medical student on the left, is shown at her summer internship at First Step Home. Photo submitted by the Urban Health Project.

Emma Clark worked with the Center for Closing the Health Gap, a non-profit that serves marginalized populations, primarily African Americans but also Appalachian rural whites and Hispanics. This summer, Clark worked on a project to identify the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children.  She took away some valuable lessons about how environmental factors play a role that surpasses that of physicians in a patient’s health.

“Health is formed in the home, the community, and the environment in which a patient lives, works, and plays,” says Clark. “As future physicians we must understand this. We must strive to treat the whole patient, understanding the social determinants that affect their health and meeting the patient where they are. The lessons I have learned this summer will stay with me throughout my career as a physician and a patient advocate."

At Bethany House, Kopchak also participated in a project known as “Voices of the Homeless,” which allowed clients to share their experiences with homelessness and their thoughts about government policies impacting the population.

“One of the things I heard was that most of the clients we were seeing had not been homeless before,” explains Kopchak. “The main factor people kept citing was the lack of child care and how it led to them losing their jobs and becoming homeless. They had nowhere to leave their children and if they were on the cutting board for losing a job this just made it worse.”

Kopchak says her clients also noted that public support for the homeless dropped during the pandemic. With social distancing now a requirement, the ability of homeless individuals to rely on friends for temporary shelter decreased.  

“One of the questions I asked during the series was how people feel they have been treated by law enforcement officials, doctors and others,” says Kopchak. She says her clients were skeptical of physicians and felt like they were being judged as bad parents because they didn’t spot problems with their children’s health soon enough.

“People felt doctors assumed they were choosing to be a bad parent or were neglecting their child when in reality they don’t have the same resources everyone else has and they are doing the best they can,” she says.

The experience left Kopchak with a few lessons she says will stay with her during her medical career.

“It will change how quick I am to judge anyone’s circumstance and help me to identify people who are more at risk and need those community resources in the future,” says Kopchak. “I can intervene in the future because I will notice the signs that someone needs these resources. I now have knowledge to effectively connect them with what they need.”

Featured top image of the woman in a mask is courtesy of Unsplash.