Columbia University Medical Center

Medical Students Organize Health Fair for Shelter Residents

Only a week before their graduation ceremony, Columbia medical students in the VP&S Class of 2018 led a health and wellness fair at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter, located in the Armory across the street from the medical center.

The students were inspired by the life and work of the late Arnold Gold, MD, a longtime pediatric neurologist at VP&S, to do something that would benefit the Washington Heights neighborhood and encourage students to engage with the local community.

“We felt this was a perfect opportunity to give back to this group of people who live in our community and in the very building where we graduate,” said Sophia C. Ebel’18, who spearheaded the Class of 2018 effort together with George W. Moran’18.

“The proximity of the shelter means that it feels like a part of our experience here, yet most of us hadn’t ever stepped foot inside by the time of graduation. It felt like a superficial barrier,” said Moran. “One of the things a lot of medical students love about Columbia is that we take seriously the responsibility of being a member of our community.”

The class joined forces with Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership (CHHMP), which has run annual health fairs in the shelter in the past, and was assisted by Lee Ann Westover’16, MS, OTR/L, the occupational therapist at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter and a graduate of Columbia’s occupational therapy program. The event was sponsored by the newly established Office of Service-Learning, directed by Anne H. Armstrong-Coben, MD, assistant dean for student affairs and assistant professor of pediatrics at VP&S.

More than 60 students from the CUIMC schools volunteered for the fair and created health and wellness stations within the shelter’s corridors. Stations staffed by VP&S students offered basic medical exams for the shelter’s residents or information on various health and wellness topics including diabetes, nutrition, sexual health, yoga, and naloxone for opioid overdose reversal. Students from the College of Dental Medicine promoted oral hygiene and distributed bags with toothpaste, toothbrushes, and floss. Physical therapy students encouraged healthy daily habits such as morning workouts and taught techniques to deal with stress. Residents also received bags, food, and clothing donated by CUIMC students during a collection drive one week before the fair.

VP&S Dean Lee Goldman, MD, Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine, visited the fair and reinforced its importance. “It’s really wonderful to have a day like today led by our students and faculty, and it shows our commitment to making this a healthier community,” he said. “We realize that people of all backgrounds and all sorts of challenges live in our community and we’re committing all we can to make their lives better.”

Medical students at VP&S have been working for many years in other parts of Washington Heights and Harlem to help the medically underserved. In addition to running CHHMP, medical students run the Columbia Student Medical Outreach Program for uninsured patients and the Columbia University Harm Reduction Outreach Network. At the fair, students raised awareness among shelter residents of these programs, as well as the community clinic within the shelter, where residents can access medical treatment and other services.

“The fair was a huge success,” Westover said. “The atmosphere of the fair motivated many of our residents to participate in important education and screening that then generated referrals to the community clinic within the shelter.”

“There is a lot of community desire for the resources of the medical center and a big desire from the students to get into the community,” Armstrong-Coben said. “Going forward we hope to do more of these events.”