Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine: Learning to Serve, Serving to Learn

By Lauren Barron

Lauren Barron, M.D., is a family physician who serves as director of Baylor’s Medical Humanities Program. In this First Person essay, she describes how Baylor prehealth students are receiving valuable training and research skills through volunteering at Waco’s Family Health Center.


Lauren Barron

I often say that the Medical Humanities Program at Baylor gives me the opportunity to teach to my 20-year-old self. Let me explain. In the 1980s I came to Baylor as a premed student. I remembered how badly I wanted opportunities for experience in the medical field while I was an undergraduate. I applied for volunteer positions and part-time jobs, but never landed one. I am sure opportunities were there –– I just didn’t know how to tap into them.

Fast forward to medical school. I was a third-year medical student when the attending physician I was working with asked, “What do you want to do?” When I answered, “Family medicine,” I could not have been more surprised when she said, “You need to go to Waco!” I told her I had just come from Waco — I graduated from Baylor! That’s when she told me about Waco’s Family Health Center (FHC), saying it was one of the best family medicine residency programs in the country. She was right.

It was hard for me to believe that I had never heard of FHC during my time as a Baylor student. During my residency, I trained under and alongside some of the finest family doctors in the nation. I was incredibly honored to be invited to join the FHC faculty after my residency, and I spent the next seven years helping to train residents and provide medical care to the vulnerable and underserved citizens of McLennan County.

I would venture to say that anyone reading this magazine has probably been shielded from the kind of poverty that exists here in Waco and surrounding the Baylor campus. When I first joined the faculty of the Medical Humanities Program here at Baylor, I lay awake at night trying to think of ways to bridge the massive gap between the experience of our students and the lives of those just beyond the bounds of our campus. If we could find a way for Baylor students to volunteer at FHC, I thought, it would give them a window into the medical profession, the world of primary care and care of the underserved.

In time, we found ways to get Baylor students involved. The FHC has a main clinic site that houses the residency program, plus 14 satellite clinics around town. We started with a pilot project that paired Alpha Epsilon Delta (one of Baylor’s many student prehealth organizations) with FHC’s Tom Oliver South 18th Community Clinic. It was a smash hit, with most of the credit going to Drs. Clint and Josephine Watson, who were champions of the project.

Baylor student volunteers performed supportive tasks –– taking phone calls, filing, faxing, stocking rooms, assisting the front desk and nurses, running errands, escorting patients to the lab, and so on. But their service organically grew into other opportunities –– being invited into the examination rooms, observing the interactions between patients and practitioners, and developing relationships with the doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners whose work is so exhausting and inspiring.

Omar Sahibzada, a Fall 2018 medical humanities graduate who was also one of the program’s DeBakey Scholars, is interested in psychiatry and wants one day to work with the underserved. It would be impossible to exaggerate the extent and severity of the mental health needs in Waco. Dr. Janie Castillo leads FHC’s Austin Avenue Clinic, located in the same building that houses our local MHMR (Mental Health Mental Retardation) Center. Omar has had the opportunity, under Dr. Castillo’s supervision, to provide support in a variety of ways –– providing companionship to patients while they are waiting for appointments, assisting illiterate patients with paperwork and patient education materials, calling patients to confirm appointments, and encouraging exercise and wellness. Omar is attending medical school this year at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston, and he credits his work as an FHC volunteer with fueling his drive to become a doctor and confirming his interest in psychiatry.

In addition to service and shadowing, many students have had the opportunity to participate in significant research as well. Daniel Truesdale, who graduated in May 2018 with a double major in medical humanities and biology, was a tireless volunteer and an officer in the Medical Service Organization (MSO) at Baylor. He served at FHC’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Clinic on Herring Avenue.

“I used my position as an officer in MSO as an excuse to go out of my way to show the FHC staff how much we appreciate them,” Daniel said. “The FHC offers a doorway to serve people in Waco that Baylor students would rarely interact with otherwise, and also allows them to work with excellent physicians and allied health workers who act as teachers and mentors.”

Daniel’s outstanding leadership and service earned him the privilege of working with Baylor’s Dr. Karol Hardin, an associate professor of Spanish, on a project titled “Implementation of a Spanish Language Track at a Family Medicine Residency Program.” This project helped to evaluate an exciting new FHC offering to resident physicians who want to become fluent in Spanish by the end of their residency. Daniel’s experience is a perfect example of the range of professional opportunities that service at FHC can provide.

Krupa George, a senior University Scholar major whose time at Baylor has been profoundly affected by her work with FHC, puts it this way: “I’ve been involved with the FHC since my freshman year, when I had the incredible opportunity to be a research assistant for Dr. Jackson Griggs and his project on patient health literacy. I collected data by surveying patients in the exam room during the vulnerable time they waited to be seen by a physician. Through this unique experience, I heard heartbreaking stories that broadened my perspective and showed how diverse the backgrounds of patients can be. This experience revealed the relevance of conversations regarding doctor-patient communication in my medical humanities classes.”

Krupa added that the FHC volunteer program is a phenomenal opportunity for Baylor students to serve undeserved patient populations and gain invaluable healthcare exposure. She cites the example of Baylor’s chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), which volunteers at Madison Cooper Community Clinic to help with the Wellness Center, and has worked with the Physician Assistants Society to organize a book drive for clinic waiting rooms.

“I’ve personally served at the South 18th Street Clinic helping with paperwork, filing charts, recycling, cleaning rooms and shadowing,” Krupa said. “This has been such a rewarding experience, especially since I know the FHC’s mission and have seen firsthand how necessary its services are to the Waco patient population. I have truly enjoyed serving at the FHC.”

It is incredibly gratifying to see well over 100 students volunteering at FHC, with more and more Baylor students and faculty participating in innovative research targeted at improving wellness in Waco. Baylor students, working through campus prehealth organizations, have been incredibly generous with their time and energy. They have even raised funds to sponsor things such as children’s play areas, books and bookshelves for the waiting rooms, backpacks and school supplies for pediatric patients –– even picnic tables for the staff.
It is difficult to convey how much this means to the physicians, faculty and staff at FHC.

“The Baylor students are really passionate about doing anything to help our staff and the patients at our clinic. They have a drive to make the lives of our patients better,” said Stacy Fagan, a nurse who once worked at the MLK Jr. Community Clinic. “There is too much to mention — from going out of their way on a Saturday to paint and put toys together so our children have a place to have fun, to helping raise money for hygiene supplies and books for our facility.”

Leslie Smith, a family nurse practitioner at the South 18th Street clinic, said, “Having Baylor student volunteers has been a joy. Their eagerness to learn and willingness to help is so refreshing. I recently had a student help an illiterate parent fill out an ADHD questionnaire and family counseling form, which was a great experience for the student and helpful to me.”

Despite the incredible role that the Family Health Center plays in insuring the health of Waco and McLennan County, I am still amazed that so many local people don’t know about this incredible organization, the caliber of the physicians and the kind of research and innovation that is happening there. But in recent years there have been more and more collaborations between FHC and Baylor that involve students and faculty from across the university.

Now that I am on the faculty of Baylor, I don’t want any student to leave the university (like I did) without knowing about the Family Health Center. Because of its consistent commitment to Central Texans –– in no small part because of partnerships with Baylor University –– that is starting to change.


This essay was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here


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