The women who live at the New Orleans Women’s Shelter (NOWS) are at an important transition point in their lives. They are actively searching for work, enrolled in continuing education programs or other schooling, raising their kids, and looking for a permanent home. With so much to do, their health needs often get put on the back burner. That’s why New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Samantha Karlin and Hunter Hopkins developed a health program that comes to them, making it easier for them to get the attention they need and deserve.
“The women that we have met at NOWS are truly inspiring,” says Karlin. “They work hard each day to meet the personal goals they set upon their arrival at the shelter. They go to work and take continuing education classes, all while raising a family by themselves. The time that they have to focus on their health needs is minimal. This is why we wanted to be involved with these women; we wanted to give them something that will benefit them and their children directly.”
Karlin and Hopkins, both students at Louisiana State University School of Medicine (LSU), developed a program that provides health education classes and student-run medical clinics to the women and children at NOWS. Classes for the women address topics like mental health and stress management; nutrition, breast cancer prevention, appropriate medication usage, and the signs of drug and alcohol addiction. Children’s classes deal with issues things like healthy eating habits, dental hygiene basics, and the importance of exercise. The medical clinics provide one-on-one counseling for the families, prenatal vitamins, prescriptions for medications, and flu shots. In fact, Karlin and Hopkins are currently accepting donations at www.NOWSoutreach.org to ensure that all NOWS residents can receive flu shots this fall.
In addition to classes and the medical clinic, Karlin and Hopkins also assist families in selecting a primary care doctor at the St. Thomas Community Clinic so that they will already be connected with a health care provider once once they leave the shelter.
Getting residents to open up and participate in the program was a challenge Karlin and Hopkins confronted early on by developing areas of common ground with and among the women and creating interactive lessons that would get them engaged.
“Throughout their lives, there has been a lot of distrust, and, consequently, they have built walls to outsiders,” says Hopkins. “Even though we all come from different circumstances, we learned that finding a common ground is a good first step in getting the women to be receptive. Also, directly involving them in the activity or lesson gets them excited about the topic at hand. It’s crucial to encourage participation and to assure them that they do have a voice in this program—they’re its foundation.”
They realized that approach could be successful after their first health education class on stress management, in which students from LSU’s Mindfulness in Medicine Interest Group led participants through breathing exercises, stretches, and group meditation.
“The women had fun doing silly poses and relieved a lot of stress just by laughing; however, we weren’t sure how many of them would actually implement the breathing exercises as a means to handle stress when we weren’t around,” Karlin says.
After the class, however, a resident approached Karlin and Hopkins and revealed that she was pregnant and worried about a recurrence of the post-partum depression she suffered after her previous pregnancy. Might these stress-relief techniques, she asked, be helpful in that case?
“The fact that she truly wanted to add these techniques into her daily routine let us know that we had made an impact on someone,” says Karlin. “We realized that we are making a difference, even if it is one woman at a time.”
The support infrastructure offered by the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship has had a significant impact on Karlin’s and Hopkins’s ability to implement their programs at NOWS. “From [Louisiana Chapter Program Director] Sofia Curdumi Pendley, to the other Fellows, to our faculty advisor Dr. Williams, we have been in constant contact with everyone, and it is really encouraging to know that other Fellows want to come to our events and help us succeed,” Hopkins says. “During the orientation weekend, we realized how each Fellow adds a different perspective. We’re both from the School of Medicine, so we have totally different perspectives than someone who is in, for instance, the School of Public Health. These different perspectives have been invaluable in developing our program.”
Karlin and Hopkins say the Fellowship has taught them that regardless of differing perspectives and individual strengths, the key to success is working together.
“As future health care professionals, we now realize the importance of a collaborative effort to provide the best care possible,” says Hopkins.
“Through working at NOWS, we have learned that everyone deserves equal access to health care,” adds Karlin. “Everyone’s situation is different, and we can’t discount a population of people who are just as deserving as everyone else based on any discriminatory factors. Health care should be universal, and it is our job as future health care professionals to see how we can achieve that ideal.”