Author: Veenadhari Kollipara

From personal connections to community advocacy

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

Sitting in an old, creaky school chair in Panama, I beckoned a mother and her children to sit across from me. Still nervous about meeting new patients, I tried to avoid meeting their gaze and instead focused on innocuously gathering information. After all, I was a foreigner and even though I was in Panama as a medical volunteer, I felt like I was forcing my way into my vulnerable patients’ lives with nothing more than my broken, inadequate Spanish.

At first, I was hesitant when interacting with them because I thought that providing health care professionally meant that I had to be serious or even solemn. As I took the mother’s blood pressure, the weight of the silence grew, until it finally became overbearing.

Not knowing any other way to connect with the woman, I decided to smile at her. To my surprise, she immediately returned the gesture. Suddenly, the tension in the air seemed to break. Her smile melted away my anxiety. The patient, too, opened up and looked happier while I took her children’s vitals.

From that moment onward, I put myself and my personality out there. I tried to converse and smile more with locals, learning more about their lives than just their medical history. After this change, when I engaged a patient in conversation, they seemed more comfortable when listening to the medical information I provided. Even though I was far from fluent in Spanish, the patients appeared more interested than before in understanding me and supporting my effort.

This experience has repeated itself time after time. When I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Chicago, a pop-up clinic in Tampa, or a vaccine distribution center in Philadelphia, I was always quite uncertain about my presence in the room. It was only when I interacted with the guests and patients that I felt more comfortable. My own comfort eventually allowed me to open up, hear other people’s stories, and understand my community.

Medical students come from various backgrounds and interests. They become involved in their communities in a variety of ways – by leading their own initiatives, by advocating with policy non-profits, by creating music to bring peace to patients, by creating videos to increase awareness of health disparities, and many more.

However, a major factor which makes any activity or project successful is how connected the student is to the community. If an individual takes the time to get to learn about the people they are helping, and the people learn about the individual’s personal story and interests, trust is built. But building connections with a community on a personal level, by establishing trust, a medical student can maximize the impact of their work.

Medicine is the combination of small connections and larger-scale efforts, patient care and health advocacy. In pursuing this career, we, as medical students, have to always keep in mind the depth of our patients’ hidden stories and the importance of striving for health equity in our community. For each one of us, this will be different. However, by doing so, we will all build trust in our communities, and advance health care.

Veenadhari Kollipara is a first-year medical student at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2022 with a summa cum laude in Health & Societies (Health Policy & Law Concentration) and a minor in Cinema and Media Studies. Her experiences as a Health Education Associate at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, a volunteer at the Sayre Health Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Center, and a Hoesley Digital Literacy Fellow have motivated Veenadhari to be passionate about both patient care and health policy/advocacy. In medical school, Veenadhari plans to become more involved in health equity initiatives focused on race and gender disparities.

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