United to Serve benefits more than 700 in UT Southwestern neighborhood

By Ali V. Adams / June 2011

Alka-Seltzer might help ease the discomfort of an upset stomach, but at United to Serve, it helped participants learn some fun science and experiment with the popular antacid to make a toy rocket fly.

More than 130 UT Southwestern students spent 10 months planning and eight hours setting up and running the seventh annual community event. In turn, more than 700 participants came to nearby T.J. Rusk Middle School, which had been transformed into a health clinic and mini-carnival.

United to Serve, first held in 2004, is part of the UT System-wide day of service. The April 30 event drew more than 450 medical-center volunteers and students from UT Southwestern’s three schools – the medical school, the school of health professions and the graduate school of biomedical sciences.

United to Serve participant Maria Tello (right) takes part in a diabetes screening performed by Nicole Ketring, a third-year medical student, and Drew Dolino, a second-year medical student.

A favorite venue was the medical museum, which captivated many children in attendance. In the museum they took an imaginary trip through an artery maze and discovered the nuances of the human body, learning about teeth, skin, muscles and brains. The children also gathered at a magic school bus where they conducted and viewed science experiments, including the antacid-powered rockets.

“A significant proportion of attendees do not have an established medical home. This makes it difficult for them to receive proper treatment and guidance for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes mellitus,” said Aaron Guel, second-year medical student and chairman of the event. “There are different perceptions of our health system in the community we target. By offering information in a fun, interactive way we are able to teach the importance of health care to almost anyone at any age.”

To teach participants about home safety, the students built a small “house” within the Rusk gymnasium. The rooms were staged to emphasize fire safety, water safety and fall prevention, and provided tips about how to read medication labels. Families were asked to draw fire escape plans and put them into action, while committing to talk about fire safety in their own homes.

“I was born and raised in a lower-income community,” Crystal Penaloza, a first-year radiation therapy student, said while promoting fire safety. “Participating in an event like United to Serve lets me give people in the community the information they may not get anywhere else.”

The event also provided families throughout the community with a chance to receive important information about their health through free screenings; immunizations and school sports exams; healthy-cooking demonstrations; and educational information about health issues such as cancer, heart disease and depression.

Attendee Catherine Aldrige recently moved to the area. Still looking for a job, she learned about the event at church and participated in the free screenings, discovering that her blood pressure and glucose level were not very good.

“I never go to the doctor because I simply can’t afford it,” Ms. Aldrige said. “When I found out about United to Serve I decided to take advantage of getting some much-needed medical care. I will definitely have to make some lifestyle changes.”

Participants were tracked as they moved among the eight screenings offered during the event. The students found that half the predominantly Hispanic participants had no medical home and many had high cholesterol, diabetes and/or high blood pressure.

“Most of our participants don’t have health insurance or any type of financial support to get the health care they need,” Mr. Guel said. “If they are only able to come to our event one time per year and have themselves examined, that is a very good thing.”

In addition, students found that 40 to 50 people who were considered at high risk for heart disease and diabetes had no medical home. In hopes of providing additional guidance, an Institutional Review Board-approved study was initiated to track individuals who are at high risk for developing heart disease and have no current physician. Those who consented to participate will be contacted every three months for the next year to determine whether they are receiving necessary medical care.

Mr. Guel feels that giving back and doing something good for the community is a nice reminder of why he is here.

“Seeing the attendees and learning their stories reminded me of why I decided to go to medical school,” he said. “Many factors determine why some community members may not be able to seek medical care. Although we are not a substitute for formal medical care, we are an important resource for information and simple screenings. The attendees learn about health and science, and we learn about serving our community.”