New Orleans Schweitzer Fellow Mary Kathryn “MK” Orsulak won’t soon forget the first day she implemented a new clinic-based patient education program at Grace House, a treatment center for women recovering from substance abuse. She and a colleague, Kate Yoder from Grace House Women’s Clinic, entered the patient’s room, introduced themselves, and asked her if she had any questions or needed help figuring anything out. The patient just stared at them. Then she started to cry.
“She told us that it wasn’t because she was sad, but because this is the first time she felt that she had a voice in long time,” Orsulak recalls. “Kate and I sat with her for about two hours that evening. She asked us questions. Sometimes we had the answers; most of the time we didn’t. But that’s not what mattered that day, what mattered was everything outside of the exam room.” They discussed addiction, medicine, and health care. The patient shared the story of how she ended up at Grace House and showed off a picture of her young daughter—the very reason she had decided to stay in the program. “She reminded us why we were here,” says Orsulak. “She reminded us that everything we’re doing at the clinic matters.”
Orsulak has been working with the women of Grace House to improve their health literacy as they recover from drug and alcohol dependency. During weekly group sessions she and other staff from Grace House Women’s Clinic, which is run by Tulane University School of Medicine students, talk with the women about multiple health issues affecting their lives, from diet, nutrition, exercise, and weight management to women’s health issues, hepatitis and liver health, and the long-term effects of drugs and alcohol on both brain and body. A one-on-one clinical education component addresses with patients the importance of preventative screening tests like pap smears, mammograms, and STI testing, among other prevention measures.
Orsulak developed the program in response to evidence showing that anxiety about physical health is a trigger for substance abuse relapse. “By creating a health education program at the Grace House clinic, we have created a way to address health concerns in a safe and supportive environment, aiming to improve overall health outcomes for our patients and residents,” she explains.
That culture of safety and support is crucial given that Orsulak must broach some weighty subjects in the weekly seminars, which is as difficult for her as it is for her students. “One of challenges of an education program is teaching difficult topics,” Orsulak says. “Specifically, the long-term effects of alcohol and the effects of drugs on the brain were two sensitive subjects for the women at Grace House. It was challenging to cover such complex topics with women whose lives have been dramatically affected by drugs and alcohol. Learning how to handle and present difficult information to an audience of this size was something I had never previously done and it was a tremendous learning experience.” In order to address this challenge, she continually seeks feedback from Grace House residents to further develop courses and improve how the material is presented.
In addition to feedback from her students, Orsulak has also found the Fellowship network to be a great source of feedback as she continually seeks to improve the program. “The phrase ‘two heads are better than one’ might be a cliché, but I believe it holds true value,” says Orsulak. “By involving more people, you introduce more life experiences and therefore create a greater pool of knowledge. So far in the Fellowship I’ve been overwhelmed by the experience and extensive knowledge the other Fellows. It’s wonderful to have core group of individuals I can depend on for guidance and advice.”
Orsulak aims to continue this type of multidisciplinary collaboration in her professional career. “My experiences in the Schweitzer Fellowship have made me even more aware of the benefits of collaboration,” she says. “Every individual has a unique perspective on life and combining all of these ideas allowed the final outcome to be much greater than the sum of its parts. I believe this idea of collaboration and teamwork is key to healthcare. Working well as a team—not just with other doctors, but with all people involved in care, including the patient—must happen in order to successfully improve all aspects of health in our community.
“I want to spend my life working with others to address the health disparities that are so prevalent in our country,” Orsulak adds. “The Schweitzer Fellowship is providing me with guidance, tools, and lifetime fellowship that will undoubtedly have a tremendous effect over my entire career.”