A 4th year MD/MPH student at Tufts University School of Medicine, Rachel Getz spoke with us about her experience working with the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC), the integral link between public health and medicine, and why she is dedicating her career to this intersection. From our conversation, it is clear that she is also passionate about addressing the need for more efforts like the APHVC to further health equity and justice work. Rachel’s story starts at the beginning of the pandemic in Massachusetts when the local health system was on the brink of being overwhelmed. During the initial wave, everyday life was disrupted in a way that made Rachel feel powerless. Through her role at the APHVC, Rachel embarked on an empowering journey that made her experience and interests relevant during a crisis.
Her past involvement in community service fueled Rachel’s drive to seek a career in both medicine and public health. During yearly service trips to different places in Latin America and around the United States, she was deeply impacted by the inequality that she observed. Doing relief work in the 9th Ward of New Orleans nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, she reflected, “I was really heartbroken with the inequality between the area I was working in versus more affluent areas like the French Quarter… [I was] touched by the health disparities.” She spoke about how pervasive and severe the inequality was in New Orleans: abandoned homes, the nearest grocery store being miles away, and disproportionate rates of respiratory illness and exacerbations in the community. For Rachel, being just a volunteer was not enough. She wanted to orient herself towards a career that would include consistent service and the ability to take action through high-impact work.
Oriented towards health equity in her graduate curriculum, Rachel was most drawn to the law and public policy courses in her MPH program. They helped her to gain an understanding of the tension between what is legally protected and what is equitable. They also gave her the vocabulary and tools needed to combat the upstream systems that perpetuated the health disparities she observed in the Ninth Ward. Outside of volunteering for the APHVC, Rachel currently works as a Summer Fellow at the Health Policy Commission, supporting their drug pricing review. She also assists in quality improvement research within addiction medicine.
At the start of the pandemic, Rachel remembered feeling a loss of control. She was on her core clerkships when they were abruptly ended as COVID-19 cases were rising. Information about COVID-19 was ever-changing, and worsening inequalities were being brought to light. “During the start of the pandemic, I just felt powerless… I was told not to come in, and there wasn’t enough PPE… signing up to help local boards of health felt empowering in a way.” She endeavored to empower community members through focusing on health literacy, practicing clear language, and simply being present alongside people experiencing uncertainty, stress, and loss.
Rachel has spent her time with APHVC contacting residents with COVID-19 test results for the city of Somerville. Sometimes, these calls had to be placed before the public health nurse, or contact tracers could reach the individual. Since Rachel was often the first voice individuals heard, she played a crucial role in informing and supporting them. More recently, these calls have expanded to linking community resources to residents. From this emotionally and professionally invested work, Rachel talks about the tremendous amount of growth and knowledge she’s gained from talking with residents and reflecting on all the intersections with public health. Building knowledge of community resources, learning the intricacies of public health departments, incorporating the literature on diagnostic testing, and expanding her definitions of the social determinants of health are all ways Rachel has grown from volunteering with APVHC.
Here are some lessons she has learned along the way:
1. It is important to communicate information clearly and concisely to residents, and this is facilitated by staying up to date on literature around COVID-19 diagnostic testing interpretation.
2. It is okay not to know the best response or what to say. Give people space to express themselves while you listen and reflect what they’re telling you.
3. Self-reflection and self-care are a must. Reflect on your background and privileges, especially during a pandemic where marginalized groups continue to be disproportionately affected. At the same time, give yourself permission to rest and receive care.
Rachel believes initiatives like APHVC possess the capacity to raise awareness and educate broadly, whether this is through first responder work like her calls, addressing the social determinants of health by linking families to community resources or doing systems-level work on the policy side. The APHVC encompasses all of these domains.
Rachel wants students, professionals, and alumni to know that we are a massive community and have a lot of power in sharing our stories and amplify the voices of others. Her ongoing work with the APHVC has empowered her by supporting people who bear the human weight of this public health crisis and has reinforced her convictions for fighting social injustice.
By: Cheyenne Bailey (BU), Kanisha Mittal (BU), Shruti Durape (BU), Thaddeus Chua (BU), Parker Sweet (UMass)