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Four students in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University have been named to the 2023-24 class of the North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (NCASF) program and will spend the next year working on projects that address social factors that impact health and health care. Their projects will be completed in part at ECU Health facilities.

They are part of a class of 29 North Carolina graduate students — including two other Brody students and two students in the ECU School of Dental Medicine — representing medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, public health and law.

“Schweitzer Fellows are not given a project or told to address a specific health need,” said Barbara Heffner, executive director of the N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. “They follow their passion and the needs of the community to develop innovative approaches which fill gaps in our health care system.”

Schweitzer Fellows develop and implement service projects that address the root causes of health disparities in under-resourced communities, while also fulfilling their academic responsibilities. Each project is implemented in collaboration with a community-based organization. Schweitzer Fellowships include an intensive leadership component, with fellows working closely with community and academic mentors during their fellowship year.

The ECU Schweitzer Fellows working on projects through ECU Health sites are:

Miranda Freeman and Michael Burt, Brody School of Medicine

Miranda Freeman

Michael Burt

A.C. Reid Schweitzer Fellows 

Academic Mentor: Dr. Rima Panchal
Site Mentor: Dr. Margaret Clifton
Site: Palliative care unit at ECU Health Medical Center and Service League of Greenville Inpatient Hospice

Freeman and Burt are developing an end-of-life companions volunteer program to provide compassionate end-of-life companionship to palliative care patients who do not have anyone able to visit them. Volunteers will receive basic inpatient and outpatient hospice training, participate in narrative medicine workshops and will become knowledgeable advocates for the role of palliative services in modern patient care.

Freeman, a fourth-year medical student and native of Eagle Springs, said her passion for the project comes from her father’s recent cancer diagnosis.

“I saw how incredibly important it is to have support and care during scary difficult moments in life,” she said. “End of life should not have to be something individuals go through on their own. This program aims at providing more support to those at the final stages of their lives.”

Burt, a fourth-year medical student from Williamston, said the project aims to bridge a gap for a vulnerable population that deserves support.

“One group of individuals who are often not appreciated in conversations about loneliness is those who are in hospice care,” he said. “There are unfortunately many people who find themselves alone as they approach the end of their lives, and we believe they deserve the option of compassionate companionship, outside of their health care team, during this time.”

Vaishnavi Siripurapu and Elisabeth “Ella” Whitfield, Brody School of Medicine

Vaishnavi Siripurapu

Elisabeth “Ella” Whitfield

Academic Mentor: Dr. Lisa Moreno

Site Mentors: Dr. Hannah Florida, Dr. Lauren Sastre

Site: ECU Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Inpatient Unit

Siripurapu and Whitfield are launching a cardiovascular health intervention for patients at the ECU Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Unit focused on individualized goal setting, nutrition education, behavioral health and community support.

Siripurapu, a second-year medical student from Mooresville, said her passion for the project comes from watching her father’s diabetes journey.

“After following his journey and realizing the impact that chronic cardiovascular disease has on many people in my rural community,” she said, “I decided to pursue a project in order to address this unmet need that has manifested in my own life.”

Whitfield, a second-year medical student from Durham, said the project will address continuity in support from the hospital to home.

“During their hospital stay, patients are provided with structure, nutritional counseling and convenient healthy meals, therapy such as physical and occupational therapy, and support from hospital staff. However, upon discharge, this support structure is removed, leaving patients feeling isolated and powerless in their circumstances,” Whitfield said. “With the status quo, patients have a difficult time creating lasting change. We hope to ease this transition for CVD patients, and prevent future re-hospitalizations, by providing an abundance of supportive measures during this gap in care. We want to support individuals in a holistic way and help to empower them to feel confident in their ability to take charge of their own health journey.”

The NCASF is funded through the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Delta Dental of North Carolina, Duke University School of Medicine, ECU Brody School of Medicine, North Carolina Area Health Education Centers, North Carolina Central University School of Graduate Studies, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative, UNC Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice, ECU Health, Wake Forest University Health Sciences and individual donors.

NCASF began in 1994 as a local chapter of the national nonprofit, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and has trained more than 600 leaders in health care. Nationally, more than 4,000 U.S Schweitzer Fellows have served individuals and communities in need and are continuing to shape health care policy and provide direct service.