Working as an uninformed volunteer for a public school system in a Michigan city can be a little like a game of roulette. Back before medical school began, I did some volunteer work in a public school for pregnant teenagers in Detroit. Not long after my time there, the school was first closed and later chartered. Since then other schools I've worked in have been closed, mostly in the Detroit area. It is commonplace in Detroit that these institutions, mighty in the eyes of thousands before that walked through its doors, are regularly threatened into becoming scrap metal havens. I knew when beginning my work at Bryant Elementary School that Flint is no different. There was always a good chance we were on borrowed time and that the feeling of futility could once again surface.
The work seemed simple enough- we would develop relationships with teachers, prepare science or health related curriculum on our own time, and have a fixed time once a week to work with the children. Despite being busy and often overworked, we became regulars at the schools. My fellow classmates worked on spectacular curricula mostly regarding health habits reinforced with our education of basic and biologic sciences. I at first took a different route, meeting with children that had social issues and helping to keep them interested in school. I later helped in the classrooms with the other medical students.
I began my handful of children with a lesson on the heart. I knew they were assigned to me because they had issues at home, but I wanted to see where their interests lay. All claimed to love science, and attentively followed my instruction on the anatomy of the heart. It helped that we had set a future date to actually dissect a deer heart as long as they could retain some basic information that I taught them. The first lesson was a hit, and they all left feeling excited about our weekly time. The next week I arrived and one of the children was missing. Apparently he had gotten into a verbal altercation with a teacher and was suspended. I additionally noted that one of the other boys had very dirty clothes on him that day. He told me his family had been evicted and he was living in a one floor house with 10 other people. It was our second lesson and the rest of the world was already crashing in, making comments, disrupting the class.
It took about four weeks after that one until we were able to dissect the heart. By some miracle of modern technology my freezer kept the heart anatomically sound, and by some other miracle of social grace my roommates did not object to a large deer heart being kept frozen in the freezer for so long. Week after week prior to this there would be some issue or other. Teachers and counsellors were entrusting me with dark family secrets with the hopes that I could somehow cater my 3 hours a week of science fun towards the complex and layered issues of the childrens' lives. The futility was creeping in on me, and my respect for the teaching profession gained even more deference.
The news that Bryant would be closing came some months before the end of the school year. All the frustration of my prior experiences came rushing back, and a part of me even felt foolish for having tried to work in an inner city school again. I believe it is common amongst many in medicine to feel like community outreach work is frustrating in comparison to clinical work. Like in medicine, the work takes a large quantity of time and energy, but there is the large difference that outcomes are very difficult to quantify. I could not point to improving lab values or see a healing wound- I will likely never be able to concretely tell if these children will stay in school, have healthy relationships with their community, go into careers they wished for, or even if they enjoy coming to class just a little more. Furthermore, how could we have impacted the children of this elementary school positively when it was clear other forces were unstoppable? Their class size would enlarge, many of the dedicated teachers would be let go, and important resources to their learning would be further rationed and diluted. I was confused and could not tell how my presence would make any difference.
“DR. K!!!” I turned around to see the student who had been evicted running towards me. It had been a month or so after knowledge of the future closing. He was quite bright but not very confident about his future- something his grades showed. I loved working with him because he had many questions, but was feeling skeptical to how our meeting time would really change the facts of his home situation. He told me he had been talking to his aunt, a nurse at the hospital I work at. He told her everything about the deer heart, explaining what he knew about blood and how it is pumped. His aunt apparently showed him some more short lessons about anatomy using their dog. He told me all of this is making him want to be an “animal doctor”.
I wish we could have stayed at that school for a longer time. We had projects underway to assess the needs of that elementary school, and hopes in the future to conduct community directed research that could benefit everyone longterm. The school closing was a major blow to what could have been an effective longitudinal relationship focused on public health. After all, we are medical people and that is what we do best. Our talents are employed wonderfully through classes and tutoring, but we do not compare to the amazing teachers that have dedicated their lives to it. Still, I know that LMU will be in the community a long time and will once again work on developing these relationships with at need groups this year.
In Bryant, as exemplified by the future veterinarian, I believe our role may have been more about planting seeds. I think we worked hard to spread ideas, sometimes about science through science projects, at other times about health through classroom activities, and always about future possibilities by our own experiences of being physicians in training. The circumstances that shortened our time there is exactly the type of negative influence we are trying to overcome with our work. The hope of the children I met who continue to persevere despite hardship necessitates that I continue to work in community outreach. I think that the feeling of hope pervades the LMU community, where hurdles like this only ask for reflection and improvement. Quitting is not an option.