My name is Emily, and I will be a junior biology major at Gettysburg College this year. I am now faced with decisions about my future career, and it is more distressing than I ever imagined. The classes I have taken at Gettysburg have assured me that I have a passion for public health initiatives. Thanks to the Career Development Center at Gettysburg College I was set up with an externship in August 2014 that would help me determine if public health is the right field of work for me.
I ended up in a small town in eastern Kentucky. For one week, I had the pleasure of shadowing Dr. Melissa Zook, a family physician at London Women’s Care in London, KY. She generously provided housing in her own home during my stay, and I had the opportunity to experience the hectic life a doctor lives. Unexpectedly, I was astounded by the severity of the problems that the people of this part of the United States face every day.
As a family care physician, Dr. Zook serves as a personal therapist and gives advice to her patients to get them through the day. Some of them even broke down in tears during their appointment. There were so many people that appeared to be well and thriving, but were desperately seeking help. And up until recently, they could not afford it.
Now that affordable health insurance is available to the impoverished community of London, there has been a steady rise in the number of people that desire medical attention. Sadly, there is a severe lack of medical resources in this place. I saw for the first time how desperately some people need and want to get their lives on track, but simply do not have the resources or education to do so.
As a result of limited psychiatric and counseling services, many of the people that walked through the doors of the office were emotionally unstable. Mental health problems in terms of depression, anxiety and drug addiction have overwhelmed the health services system.
Additionally, there were kids that had half the teeth they should. Poor dental hygiene is a major issue in this community and has been attributed to the abundance of sugary drinks and sodas available in the home, and or the fact that people do not have access to or insurance to pay for dental visits.
During the five days I spent at London Women’s Care, I met six pregnant teens, many of whom already had children. Teenage pregnancy is so common in this area, and unfortunately, the foster care system has a difficult time placing children into loving homes.
Poor parenting in some of these situations can cause many behavior problems in children and lead to an abundance of complicated health issues in their adult lives. Dr. Zook explained that she regularly contacts social services to help the neglected and abused patients she has.
You can see these side effects of these public health problems in the school systems, and they are hindering students’ ability to earn a good education. One boy from the town of London described that nearly one third of the students in his graduating class dropped out of school before receiving a diploma. Many left due to drug related issues, teen pregnancy and or criminal behavior. He explained that this is the norm.
I think the hardest part about listening to these stories is how challenging it is to make change as a doctor. This is especially true for the people of this community that have lived this way their whole life and see no need for improvement.
Poverty exists, and this cycle will never heal completely unless we convince others that there is a need for change. My experience in London, Kentucky has shown me that I want to study public health after Gettysburg College to address the problems that our society has created and bring new solutions to the table. I feel confident that this is the career path that I am most passionate about pursing, and I will be eternally grateful for my experience with Dr. Zook for helping me come to a decision about my future profession.