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‘Being in medicine is a position of leadership’

For MS-II student Rachelle Ford, being a doctor means caring for a whole community

Wednesday Sep 02, 2015

Medical students, by design, tend to be altruistic. It’s true a great many might be drawn to the science, the fascination of being able to fix the human body, for instance, but even with that, it’s rare for a medical student to lack the desire to help others in every way possible.

Ask Rachelle Ford about the role of a physician, and her answer encompasses more than you might expect.

A second-year student at Indiana University School of Medicine–Northwest (IUSM-NW), Ford sees being a physician as a position of leadership. In her future role as a family medicine doctor, she sees herself as a public servant charged with overseeing the overall health of an entire community.

This means addressing social factors that affect one’s health, as much as doling out antibiotics. It means making sure folks have access to nutritious food, a safe place to exercise, and even a park in their neighborhood.

“If you are caring for the health of a neighborhood or a group of people as patients, to address health, you should really do more than just see them in the office,” Ford said. “Seeing that there is such a big need, it kind of makes me feel like I have to do something. I feel a responsibility for that.”

Taking a non-traditional route to medical school, Ford, now 30, worked as a community organizer in California for a couple of years after earning her undergraduate degree in biology. In this role, the Los Angeles native worked with hospitals to identify communities of need and assisted healthcare workers in building community leadership and developing programs.

“Our idea was to help people fix their own health needs,” she said.

Ford said working as a community organizer helped her decide that addressing these needs is her life’s work. Becoming a family practice physician seemed a logical next step in her journey.

“I came to medical school with the understanding that I also wanted to do community service,” Ford said.

Throughout her journey at IUSM-NW so far, Ford has volunteered at the local food bank, and is mobilizing a student group called Hispanic Education Awareness and Leadership (HEAL). The group is under the auspices of the national Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA). Locally, the group serves to help strengthen medical students’ Spanish-speaking skills and facilitate their work serving the Latino population in the region.

Ford considers mentoring students an important part of community service, so naturally, when she heard about Michael McGee’s Project Outreach and Prevention on Violence (POP) program, she knew she had to get involved. The program was born out of McGee’s desire to stem the violence amongst youth that he sees as an emergency medicine physician.

In July, McGee, who heads the Emergency Department at Methodist Hospitals, brought students to IUSM-NW to participate in the POP Health Professions Enrichment Program, a three-day program designed to increase the number of Northwest Indiana underserved minority students entering careers in the healthcare field. Ford was among the IUSM-NW students who shared their personal stories with the students.

A woman of Latino descent, who is also a first-generation college student, Ford understands how important it is to have a mentor to look to, someone with a similar background and obstacles, who has been successful.

“When I was studying pre-med in California,” she explained, “I was a part of the Latino Medical Student Association. I had mentors who made a difference for me. Since I was the first in my family to graduate college, I didn’t know how to maneuver college or how to be successful at it. Having medical students who were willing to come back to my school, a little community college, and give a talk for us pre-meds, telling us how to do this and just providing inspiration, was significant. Just seeing someone who looks like you and comes from your background who has done it, helps in those times when you are getting down and thinking you can’t continue down this path. Because it is a long road to medicine.”

It’s a fair question to ask a medical student just how they find the time to do community service.

For Ford, it’s just part of the journey. Community service serves as a motivator, a reminder of why she is here.

“A lot of what we want to do in medicine is help people, so our heart is there,” she said. “We have to balance it with studying, but you need that to continue motivating you to study.”

Given her focus, Ford is happy she found herself at the Gary campus, which was among her top three choices for where she would attend IUSM.

“I knew I wanted to be somewhere where I could give back and I thought that this school, being in this setting and understanding what I knew about Gary, that this is an underserved area where there is opportunity to give back; but I also thought there are probably students going there because they also want to give back,” she said.

She was right.

“I’m really excited that I came to a medical school where my classmates have similar ideas,” she said. “I think the support of knowing that other people want to do what you are doing – we are not just in medicine, but we want to give back to the community.

“It’s inspiring to hear some of the things my classmates have done,” she continued. “Even though we have different backgrounds, or we come from different fields – some are career-changers; some are right out of college. For the most part, we’ve all been involved in these community outreach activities. We are growing together and bonding together in this work of service that we are doing for others. That, to me, is amazing. I love that I am in a school setting where we can do that.”

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