By Zachary Horner, Chatham News + Record Staff
Like pretty much every student in North Carolina and across the United States, Luke Ford and Caleb Smith found their spring plans dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It didn’t take long for them to make new ones.
Fourth and third-year med students at UNC-Chapel Hill, respectively, Ford and Smith have helped lead an infusion of their classmates into Chatham County as volunteers for the Chatham County Council on Aging during a time where many of the organization’s regular volunteers are responding to COVID-19 themselves.
“I reached out to some rural counties to see how we could assist their senior centers during this time of the COVID crisis,” said Ford, “mainly because a lot of the volunteer base for the senior centers is composed of seniors themselves, and they wouldn’t want to leave the house. So there is kind of a role for medical students to play there. The program really just took off.”
Through fundraising, item delivery and simple things like phone calls, these UNC med students are making a difference in Chatham, according to COA Executive Director Dennis Streets.
“I can’t say enough good things about how these students have responded to assist us in serving Chatham seniors and their families,” Streets said. “They are truly a blessing.”
Not on the schedule
Third and fourth-year med students at UNC spend most of their time in clinics, practical learning as part of their education. But both Ford, from Durham, and Smith, a Stokes County native, had their clinic work cut short when the university canceled in-person classes.
“I was sitting around, twiddling my thumbs, looking for something to do,” Smith said.
Then Ford reached out, and Smith got involved. Meredith Bazemore, the director of rural initiative and recruitment at the UNC School of Medicine, helped facilitate that.
“The initiative was founded and established to recruit, educate, train and retain physicians who want to stay in rural North Carolina,” Bazemore said. “So we work with these students across their entire medical school career and then out into residency and try to plan them back in rural North Carolina in partnership with lots of people.”
All of the initiative’s projects were halted, she said. But then students got involved.
Beginning in mid-March, Ford and Smith began rallying students to do a lot of things — among them deliveries and collection of meals, incontinence supplies, books and toilet paper.
Ford said seniors are worth the focus right now because of their status, particularly during the pandemic, as “the most vulnerable population.”
“And irrespective of COVID, they’re still vulnerable, outside of a pandemic,” he said. “I think this kind of situation presented some unique challenges to them, because a lot of services they rely on were cut back or put under strain when the healthcare system was just focused on addressing immediate needs and shortage of resources and a lot of the community and social aspects of health.”
Addressing the mental side
Something Ford, Smith and Bazemore each addressed was the importance of keeping socialization front-and-center during the pandemic. Smith said friendly calls — something the Council on Aging has been doing since its Senior Centers closed in March — to homebound seniors have surprised him.
“Just chatting with some of our seniors that our volunteers have called — they’re really, really thankful for those and appreciative,” Smith said. “I guess I underestimated the impact that would have and I think some of our volunteers did too. I really walked away having a rewarding experience getting to chat with those folks.”
Individuals 65 and older made up 24 percent of Chatham County’s population in 2017, compared to 22 percent of the population ages 0-19. Earlier this month, Streets told the News + Record he estimated that the “vast majority” of seniors in Chatham live out in the county, not around others or in congregate communities.
A number of those seniors are struggling with technology and thus aren’t able to connect as well, Smith said, with others.
“When I think about social isolation, our aging population in rural areas is one of the first groups that I worry about,” he said. “So I’m really glad we’ve been able to do those calls. I wish we could do something more face-to-face, and maybe we’ll be able to get that capacity at some point.”
Ford said individuals who are already dealing with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, or who have lost loved ones recently and are wrestling with grief, will only see those situations exacerbated right now.
“The mental health consequences also have an impact on physical health,” he said. “If you have uncontrolled depression or you just feel lonely, and you don’t have any meaningful social interaction, it’s much less likely that you’re going to take care of your physical health. You’re not going to go to the pharmacy to get the medications you need. If you have diabetes, you’re not going to be willing to and wanting to check your blood sugar, take your hypertension medication, all that kind of stuff.”
Limitations on church attendance by government executive order, Ford said, will also add to those feelings of isolation. According to a July 2019 report from the Barna Group, a research firm that tracks the role of faith in America, 83 percent of individuals born before 1946 and 80 percent born between 1946 and 1964 identify as Christians, compared to 73 percent between the ages of 21 and 35 and 64 percent of those under 21.
“The church is just such an integral part and in a lot of cases the most important part of people’s social and spiritual lives,” he said. “Not being able to go to the Mass or the service you go to once a week or more than once a week is something that I think people probably never had to experience in their life.”
Potential to expand
With no certain end date in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no certain end date for the work Ford, Smith and other UNC students are doing in Chatham. There are plans to do ramp-building with the nonprofit Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, and a personal protective equipment drive is in the works.
Bazemore said it could be the start of something to expand.
“This has really been an impetus to think about partnership in Chatham County” she said. “Even as things shift back to classroom experiences, I see a lot of opportunity to continue engagement from the student side.”
For Ford and Smith, it has been an opportunity to engage in what they want to do with their careers, work in rural areas. Ford said he is drawn to rural communities because of their often close-knit nature.
“The most successful doctors in rural communities aren’t just a doctor,” he said. “They’re a part of the community. They help, they know everyone, they go to the same church as the people in their clinic. They’re more than just a physician.”
Smith said he hopes to carry some of the things he’s learned during his service in Chatham into his career, wherever that ends up being. He grew up in the unincorporated community of Sandy Ridge in Stokes County, which rests on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
“This has highlighted a lot of disparities, and maybe we shouldn’t back to normal,” he said. “Maybe we should try to learn some things from this. How can we implement telehealth? How can we improve senior services? These are things that we should really consider in rural areas.”
Streets pointed to the work the students have done, particularly one example, as to their effect in Chatham. The group set up a GoFundMe page for hygiene supplies that raised more than $500.
“When we collectively wondered how we could meet certain requests, they set up a GoFundMe site entitled ‘Join us in helping our senior neighbors!’” Streets said. “That’s a very appropriate name, as I imagine that a number of these students likely had not ventured into Chatham before COVID-19. Now they have traversed the county helping their senior neighbors here in Chatham.”
However long the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, these students have pledged to continue helping their neighbors from the county next door.
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