It was the middle of January and I was well into the depths of my intern year – that time of year when the days are short, but the end of intern year feels so far away. It happened to be a relatively slow evening on the twilight shift, and I was feeling restless.
I hold a deep belief that the decisions that drive human health and disease take place where people live, work and play – in their own communities. And here I was, surrounded by all the marvels and resources of modern medicine, yet completely removed from the lives of my patients. I was literally and figuratively cooped up in my ivory tower on the 14th-floor general medicine wards feeling estranged from the local community. I needed to get a bit closer to the action.
During a meandering Google search, I happened upon something called “the Brigham and Women’s Center for Community Wellness.” I learned that, thanks to the generosity and commitment of BWH’s Paul Ridker, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, the center had been built at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center a few miles down the road from the Brigham in Dorchester. I also learned that the facility is a hidden gem, equipped with learning classrooms, a fitness facility and an outdoor garden. Paul, taking a momentary break from his groundbreaking research, expressed pleasant surprise and enthusiasm when I emailed him out of the blue inquiring how I could get involved.
From that day forward, we began developing programming with the aim of improving health literacy and promoting empowerment at the Center for Community Wellness and within the greater Dorchester community. The main project I’ve helped spearhead to date has been an ongoing Wellness Wednesday seminar series. The series is led by residents and each course focuses on a different health and wellness topic pertinent to the community. Ongoing since September 2017, Wellness Wednesday topics have included everything from diabetes and arthritis to depression and substance use, and even discussions around sleep and Alzheimer’s. Rather than educational lectures, these sessions feel more like group discussions during which we explore not only the science about various conditions, but how these conditions relate to personal experience and impact the local community.
I remember initially pitching the idea to Paul and Toni Wiley, the executive director of Sportsmen’s, without a clue whether other residents would participate. But the response has been amazing and encouraging, with more residents offering to participate than speaking slots available. Over the course of the last year, we began hosting bi-monthly sessions to accommodate more residents.
As Paul always reminds me, “The facility is here for us to use. Let’s be creative!” And when you give a group of kind-hearted, mission-oriented residents a blank canvas, they will – despite hectic and exhausting schedules – find the time and energy to paint a mural.
These days, other residents are eagerly designing their own initiatives at the center. Tina Meade, MD, a second-year resident in Internal Medicine and Primary Care, is coordinating the Wellness Wednesdays as the series enters its second year. Joshua Lang, MD, MS, a third-year resident in Internal Medicine, orchestrated a fantastic Health Fair earlier this month, complete with information stations on nutrition, exercise and mindfulness. And Peter Dunbar, MD, a third-year resident in the Harvard Brigham and Women’s/Boston Children’s Hospital Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program, is working with Boston Children’s Hospital residents to conduct weekend workshops for parents on child health and wellbeing.
We’ve found that the Dorchester community is appreciative for this intimate and accessible health education series. Many residents have commented how “relatable” and “friendly” we (the residents) are when presenting.
Perhaps even more appreciative are the residents who have led a Wednesday Wellness session. Many have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to get outside of the hospital bubble and give back to our community in a way that has a tangible and immediate impact. Many leave the sessions feeling hopeful, inspired and reinvigorated about patient care. And this process gives us the opportunity to prepare a talk, communicate complicated medical jargon in layman’s terms and practice public speaking – all valuable skills in our professional development.
During our Wellness Wednesdays discussions, I hear the struggle to stay healthy and sense the distrust of the medical system. I feel a sincere appreciation that I have come out of my 14th-floor ivory tower and entered the action. And I see a community that is eager to engage and own its health. I hope that the BWH Community Wellness Center can serve as an outlet, a blank canvas, and one day a hub for community empowerment right here in our own backyard.