Conner Dewey remembers the moment one of his patients put on a pair of glasses for the first time.

His vision had been so poor, he didn’t drive. Highway signs, street signs, they were all so hard to see that he could never pass the test to get a license.

Dewey tested his eyes and fitted him with glasses. Seeing through them, the man burst into song. In Spanish.

“His wife said it was a song giving thanks,” Dewey says. “It was really special.”

Over the months that Dewey volunteered as an optometry graduate student at two Columbus medical clinics, he felt like he helped some of the very people who needed it most. Parents told him their child could see the board for the first time. They could read their books without struggling. Others learned for the first time they had cataracts.

“For a lot of patients, this was their first eye exam. They might have been getting by, not knowing what they were missing.”Conner Dewey, a fourth-year graduate student at The Ohio State University College of Optometry

Those experiences happen throughout the school year. In clinics and organizations, Ohio State health sciences students volunteer as they prepare to become health care providers. They test blood pressure and hearing, perform mammograms and dental exams, seek out low-cost medications for their patients and give advice for preventing strokes, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

In giving, students also receive. They sharpen their skills and learn what factors can keep their future patients from being healthy: low income, no health insurance, limited English, homelessness.

“Sometimes we just assume we all have the care that we need,” Dewey says.

Collage of two photos: College of Optometry student with his wife and daughter, and College of Pharmacy students
Left: Conner Dewey, a fourth-year graduate student at The Ohio State University College of Optometry is pictured with his wife, Kelley, and their daughter, Brynn.
Right: The chance to work with people with limited access to health care is the reason Amaal Ahmed (back row, right) chose pharmacy as a career.

Beyond giving out medication

When you think about having your blood pressure or your blood glucose levels tested, you might not think of going to a pharmacist. But the role of pharmacists has widened to include giving out medication and giving shots as well as doing health screenings to prevent or manage chronic illnesses.

As a third-year student at the Ohio State College of Pharmacy, Amaal Ahmed volunteers annually at Columbus’ African American Male Wellness Walk, and UpLift Her, an event for Black women.

“There were a lot of people at the events who didn’t regularly see their doctor or regularly get their numbers checked or were unaware of what the numbers meant,” Ahmed says. “I felt like the work we were doing made a difference.”

The chance to coach and advocate for people in underserved communities is what led Ahmed to become a pharmacist.

“And as the roles of pharmacists expand to include health screenings, there’s more ways we can help people.”

Supporting patients’ health and basic needs

In a class teaching nursing students about health equity and justice, students in the Ohio State College of Nursing offer free wellness screenings while learning about the needs of various communities.

Their work might take them to a health fair, a senior living community, school, food pantry or another site.

“I challenge my students to advocate for their patients not only for their medical treatment but also for other needs their patients might have as well.”Sarah Rust-Overman, DNP, MSN, APRN-CNP, a clinical assistant professor of practice

The goal is for students to identify and help with some of the hurdles people might face to being healthy. Before offering a free screening at a health fair, senior living community, or school, students are encouraged to know some of the resources in the area. That way, they can direct patients to food pantries, low-cost or free medical clinics, or support finding a job.

Ohio State College of Nursing students providing health screenings
At the free health screenings Ohio State nursing students offer around the community, they refer their patients to agencies that can help with other needs such as food or employment.

“They’re going to encounter patients who need support,” Dr. Rust-Overman says. “Instead of relying on others to provide that, the students can connect their patients with resources that could improve their health.”

Offering practice in reading

Growing up, Kaitlyn Held often did community service work through her church.

When she came to college, she didn’t seem to have much time to do it.

“I kind of missed those connections,” says Held, now a college senior in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. The school prepares students to work in fields such as respiratory therapy, athletic training and health care administration and is within the Ohio State College of Medicine.

Held was excited to take an elective that would give her a chance to get back into volunteering. In fact, the course required it.

Everyone in the class could choose from among many volunteer opportunities with a local nonprofit organization. Held chose The Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio. She and four other students brainstormed events they could put on to improve reading skills for recent high school graduates with Down syndrome.

Ohio State HRS students and young people with down syndrome volunteering together at Barks and Rec, a dog daycare
Kaitlyn Held (back row, far left) volunteered last spring for The Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio to organize events that reinforced reading skills.

They came up with two. One was a chance for people to read out loud to dogs, a low-stakes environment in which they would not be corrected if they mispronounced a word or took a while to finish a page. The students also organized a karaoke night.

“We thought we were doing this event for them,” Held says. “But everyone was cheering for us as we sang too.”

Getting in the habit of service work

With so few Ohio dentists accepting Medicaid or offering a sliding scale for services, the work of graduate dental students from Ohio State’s College of Dentistry allows more people to be treated across the state.

Before graduating, each student is required to serve for 40 days at their choice of 26 community dental clinics in the state. They do fillings and crowns, root canals and implants among other procedures.

Ohio State College of Dentistry students providing free dental cleanings
The service work that all dental students at Ohio State do in clinics statewide helps them get into the habit of giving back to communities.

“This experience often motivates students to include volunteering throughout their careers,” says James Cottle, DDS, an assistant clinical professor who directs the community outreach program. “They see the bigger picture and choose to use their skills to help others.”

Eric Burkhart, student at the College of DentistryIn his last year at the college, Ryan Burkhart was eager to begin his service work.

As the son of two teachers, it’s probably not surprising that Burkhart has a knack for teaching. His work gave him more chances to do that, coaching people on how to take care of their teeth and convincing them that their teeth can affect their overall health.

Burkhart recalls one patient he worked with who had several broken and infected teeth and pain throughout her mouth. X-rays indicated she would need to have all her teeth replaced with dentures. She was 29.

When she returned to the office for a cleaning, Burkhart realized how many of her teeth could possibly be saved instead of replaced. He suggested some ways she could take better care of her teeth.

“After I coached her on hygiene, she was determined to save the teeth she could.”

Medicine’s future in the hands of many interested in equity

During her first year in medical school at Ohio State’s College of Medicine, Mary Charleton began working at the Columbus Free Clinic.

She didn’t realize then how much the student-run medical practice would broaden her thoughts on medicine and widen her career interests to include both internal and emergency medicine.

Medical students volunteering in Ohio State’s student-run clinic
Working at the Columbus Free Clinic helped define Mary Charleton’s mission, to assist those who struggle to pay for health care.

Charleton helped launch a women’s health screening event, offering Pap smears, breast exams,  and tests for sexually transmitted infections, cholesterol and blood glucose levels. From those tests, some patients learned they had cancer. It was shocking news but also a chance to be treated early on for the cancer, which may have otherwise gone undetected.

“I think we saved a few lives,” Charleton says.

Working at the Columbus Free Clinic with future nurse practitioners and physicians made Charleton realize how many people share her passion that a healthy life shouldn’t just be for those who can afford prevention and treatment.

“It gives me optimism,” she says, “about where medicine is headed in the future.”

Committed to building healthier communities

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