As a rule, medical students are extremely busy. Between studying, seeing patients, studying and — well, let’s face it — more studying, they can have a hard time fitting sleep into their schedules.
But somehow, some way, the medical students at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine find time to make a difference in the community. How? They plan an annual art show and auction to fund mammograms and other women’s health screenings for their neighbors in need.
“We have to study 20 hours a day, and it’s a challenge sometimes,” admits second-year medical student Joseph Burns, the art director for this year’s Mammography Art Initiative, which takes place Saturday at Art & Sol Studios in Wynwood. “But it’s easy to find time when you’re passionate about something, the same way if I had a son or daughter I’d be just as passionate about him or her. I’ve made time for this project because it’s been a tremendous eye-opener for me.”
This year marks the fifth year of the fundraiser, which started out paying for mammograms for women who couldn’t afford them and has evolved to include other women’s health initiatives. The show, entitled “Spectrum” — because of the wide spectrum of services the program hopes to fund — includes works by local artists and FIU students (donations from both are always welcome). Money raised at the event goes into a student fund that’s disbursed to patients as needed.
It’s the focus of the curriculum here, how to be a community-engaged physician, not just a scientist or a leader or community servant but really understanding what it means to make a change.
Joseph Burns, second-year FIU medical student and art director of the Mammography Art Initiative
“The medical students, it was 100 percent their idea,” says Dr. Sheldon H. Cherry, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “It’s extraordinary what they do. I’m very impressed. You don’t have to ask them to do something — they take the ball and run with it.”
The Mammography Art Initiative builds on FIU’s history of reaching out to underserved parts of the community. In 2011, when she first arrived at FIU, the school was tasked with investigating breast cancer in Miami, says Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz, executive associate dean for academic affairs and professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. Were rates higher or lower? Were women getting the health care they needed for early detection, a huge advantage in fighting the disease?
What they found after researching tumors at the Florida Cancer Registry, Runowicz says, was astonishing. The average rate of women diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer was 39 percent in Florida and 35 percent in Miami. But in particular neighborhoods — Opa-locka, Hialeah, Miami Gardens and Homestead were the four originally studied — the rate was between 48 and 59 percent, which suggests women weren’t discovering the disease until it was well advanced.
“Why aren’t women screened?” asks Runowicz, an oncologist and breast cancer survivor. “It’s either because they don’t have insurance so they can’t do it, or it’s impossible to get to a place where their insurance covers it. They have to take three buses. Or they’ve got kids at home and can’t leave them unattended so they forgo their own medical care. Or maybe it’s a social or cultural thing.”
The study led to the Linda Fenner 3D Mammography Center, a mobile 3-D mammogram unit, funded by the Braman Family Foundation. Since its inception, the mobile unit has served almost 1,400 women.
It’s too soon to tell if the late-stage detection has decreased in these neighborhoods. But overall the program has been so successful that Burns and his fellow students are hoping to raise enough money to include Pap smears and the HPV vaccine, which protects against many forms of cervical cancer, as part of the health screenings. Also needed are follow-up appointments for women who need biopsies.
“Once a patient has got the official pathology and diagnosis of cancer, she can go on Medicaid,” Runowicz explains. “But once you see something that looks like cancer you need to take a biopsy, and in that window of time the patient isn’t covered by insurance. Having this wiggle room of money is very helpful.”
Offering health care to uninsured or under-insured women is part of FIU’s goal of serving Miami-Dade, Cherry says.
“It fits with the mission of the school,” he says. “If a student donates time and goes out to teach a woman how to take care of herself, it’s a learning experience, but it’s also giving back to the community. It’s service. And these are the kinds of students we attract.”
Burns, who says he has enjoyed working on a project that takes him outside the classroom, has set a lofty goal of raising $20,000 this year. But being a student at FIU has inspired him to dream big, looking beyond his own studies.
“If I had to identify one factor that was most instrumental in me deciding to choose FIU, it was the social conscience of this university,” he says. “You feel it from the second you walk in the door. It’s evident in the way we’re taught, the way people talk around here, evident in the way our values are actually lived through the college of medicine. … It’s not something extra, it’s the focus of the curriculum here, how to be a community-engaged physician, not just a scientist or a leader or community servant but really understanding what it means to make a change.”