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Training city docs

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Urban medicine student Yury Parra

Urban medicine student Yury Parra (right) teaches hairstylists like Aracely Garcia, owner of ARA Beauty Salon in Pilsen, to look for signs of domestic violence in clients.

Photo: Lizbeth Rodriguez

When you think about training people to recognize the signs of domestic violence, you might not think of hairstylists.

But medical student Yury Parra is developing workshops for hairdressers in the Pilsen community, instructing them to take note of clients with missing hair, bruises and unusual bumps, or the fear that a new look would anger their partner.

The project is part of her work through UIC’s Urban Medicine Program, which combines traditional medical studies with specialized training on underserved populations.

“The program has allowed me to grow and understand the complexity of working as a health care professional,” she said. “It’s critical to be able to be my patients’ advocate.”

About 100 of UIC’s 1,350 medical students are enrolled in the Urban Medicine program, which accepted its first class in 2005, said program director Jorge Girotti.

“We hope our physicians come out with a stronger sense of cultural sensitivity, especially in the diversity of an urban setting,” said Girotti, associate dean and director of admissions for special curricular programs in the College of Medicine.

Urban medicine students complete the same coursework as other medical students and participate in the same hospital rotations. But they also take courses that address topics such as diversity, health care disparities, intercultural communication and advocacy and public policy.

“Just look around our medical center to see the very needs of these communities,” Girotti said. “What’s been missing is something that brings a group of like-minded individuals together and keeps them together throughout medical school so they can continue to motivate one another.”

The Urban Medicine Program adds population medicine and public health to the curriculum, said co-director Gary Loy.

Faculty include sociologists, public health practitioners and public policy professors, among others.

“We focus on making students recognize their cultural ignorance and try to chip away at that ignorance so that they can be effective communicators at every level — with their patients, while advocating to policymakers and within the community,” Loy said.

Students also participate in longitudinal rotations, connecting with a community organization during their first year and continuing to work on a special project throughout their four years of medical school.

“We really want to break down the traditional notion of these walls of academia and bring the community to us and our students into the community,” said assistant director Joanna Michel.

“Being a successful physician requires the ability to relate to people at different levels and an awareness of some of the larger issues that are affecting their health.”

For her longitudinal rotation, Parra volunteers at Mujeres Latinas En Acción, which works with Hispanic women. She conducts workshops on domestic violence with medical students Lizbeth Rodriguez, Jacqueline Restrepo and Nancy Rodriguez, directing hairstylists to refer clients to the center’s domestic violence counseling services.

“There’s a trust between the hairstylists and clients,” said Parra, a third-year medical student.

Third-year medical student Meena Chelvakumar teaches health tips to women who live at Deborah’s Place, an organization that helps homeless women.

She hosts “chew and chats” where residents eat lunch together and hear from experts on topics ranging from nutrition to mental health.

“Being a doctor, a lot of the time, is working in a hospital and seeing people within a very controlled environment,” she said. “Now I get to meet them where they’re comfortable.

“It gives me a much better picture of who they are and that’s a much better starting point to building a relationship.”

Garth Walker worked with Project Brotherhood, a South Side clinic for African Americans, to highlight the importance of colorectal screenings.

“One of the best components of the program is that you learn so much from all of your classmates who have different interests,” said Walker, a second-year student.

Angel Desai was drawn to the Urban Medicine program because of its community advocacy component. She works with the hospital’s Reach Out and Read Program, which emphasizes the importance of reading in child development.

“The pediatrician’s office ends up being the venue through which kids become exposed to reading,” said Desai, a third-year student.

She’s met some of her best friends through the Urban Medicine Program.

“We have a really good and close dynamic and I learn a lot from them,” she said.

Jeremy Howe, who is in his last year of medical school, decided to attend UIC specifically because of the program.

“It was everything that I felt like medicine was supposed to be doing, with its focus on the underserved community,” he said. “It’s been a great way to connect with likeminded medical students.”


Third-year student Meena Chelvakumar (left) teaches nutritional tips to Regina Brown and other residents of Deborah’s Place.

Third-year student Meena Chelvakumar

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