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Three Geisel Students Receive Prestigious Public Health Service Award

Given to medical students in recognition of their commitment to helping address public health issues in their community, the nationally competitive U.S. Public Health Service  Excellence in Public Health Award rewards visionary medical students who are advancing initiatives to improve social justice.

Second-year Geisel students Sarah Kovan ’22, Sam Tsai ’22, and Isabelle Yang ’22, are this year’s recipients of theprestigious award. This is the sixth year in a row that Geisel students have received this recognition.

“I am so impressed with what Isabelle, Sam, and Sarah have done—I had to nominate them,” says Joseph O’Donnell, MD, emeritus professor of medicine.

Isabelle Yang ’22

Their inspired action grew out of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project expanding primary care from the Good Neighbor Clinic to the Upper Valley Haven. Clinic attendance was dwindling, and to find out why, Kovan, Tsai, and Yang met with Haven staff and residents, as well as many in the homeless population. Through these interviews they learned that population wasn’t getting what it needed from the clinic.

What people living on the street needed and wanted was difficult to obtain—more than anything else, they wanted foot care. Their feet were in bad condition from exposure to the cold because of inadequate protective footwear.

Under the direction of Peter Mason, MD, an assistant professor of community and family medicine at Geisel, and one of the doctors who started the Good Neighbor Health Clinics, the medical students organized a foot care clinic at the Haven.After receiving treatment, the “patients” received donated socks and shoes.

Sarah Kovan ’22

“A lot of people using the Haven’s warming shelter were able to have their feet taken care of by Geisel medical students,” says O’Donnell who is also their preceptor. “It’s an amazingly compassionate thing they are doing for people who have never experienced anything like this, and the students are learning first-hand about the consequences of poverty—thestruggles people have and the ramifications of adverse early life experiences.”

Kovan says it is an honor to work with and learn from the residents at the Haven. “From collaborating with case managers to engaging in focus groups with the residents, the foot care clinic stemmed from a need within the community and was only possible through their support. I am honored to receive this award because it highlights this collaboration and the continued importance of advocating for vulnerable populations both in the Upper Valley and nationwide.”

Sam Tsai ’22

O’Donnell emphasizes this population “isn’t that different from us if we had bad luck ourselves, and they realize that. This is a population that needs a bit of extra love and attention.”

As future physicians, Yang says, “We have a responsibility to look out for the most vulnerable folks in our community. Through our conversations with case managers and residents, we learned that foot health is often overlooked, but critical for this mobile population who are always on their feet. I am thankful for the award and hope to continue to be an empathetic listener and creative problem solver.”

Growing up as an immigrant and first-generation college student, Tsai says he was lucky to have had guidance in navigating the healthcare system. “Many families continue to struggle with social determinants of health. Getting to know patients at the Upper Valley Haven helps us address the community's specific healthcare needs.

“Our work is also a reflection of Geisel's commitment to service among its medical students. In engaging the community, we learn to better listen to, care for, and perhaps most importantly to advocate for our patients. I'm excited to see so many of my fellow classmates making an impact.”