Sept. 20, 2018 —On a busy, 24 hour-long obstetrics and gynecology call, third-year medical student Alysha Colón assisted in an emergency cesarean section procedure. The patient was frantic and worried, and without the ability to understand English, she didn’t have a firm grasp on what was going to happen next. Colón spoke to her in Spanish and explained her changing condition.
“The patient saw there was someone she could relate to amidst her emergent situation, and she thanked me for speaking to her right away,” Colón says.
This interaction in the operating room is just one of many experiences Colón has accumulated that have convinced her of the necessity of a culturally competent and sensitive workforce in medicine. Every day she works toward improving her own skills in this area, with help from the Hugh M. “Smiley” Hill, M.D., Scholarship Endowment Fund. Colón says the scholarship allows her to focus on her future.
“Since I was 15, I’ve made it a point to support myself through jobs or other means, so as not to put too much of a financial burden on my parents. Receiving the Smiley Hill scholarship takes away a lot of the stresses caused by the expenses of medical school,” she says. “This fund will let me seize opportunities available to me at the UF College of Medicine. When I’m a physician, I hope to pay it forward and show how thankful I am to receive the help I’ve been given.”
Last year, Colón and a classmate established the UF College of Medicine chapter of the Latin Medical Student Association. They organized a month-long celebration of Hispanic heritage, including salsa lessons during students’ break time and a panel discussion that gathered together Hispanic physicians at the UF College of Medicine campus. For Colón, bridging the gap among diverse cultures is a step toward achieving health equity for all.
She’s witnessed firsthand the barriers to access of care that exist within her own family. Colón’s family is from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and she was born in the Bronx and raised in south Florida. She can recall her family members’ trouble with English literacy and the impact it had on the care they were given.
Working as the senior operations coordinator for the Equal Access Clinic, a network of community medicine free clinics staffed by UF College of Medicine students and faculty, as well as a site officer and care coordinator for the UF Mobile Outreach Clinic, cemented Colón’sbeliefs in culturally competent care.
“Over the last five years, I’ve learned that health isn’t just about what brings a patient in that day. The more you challenge yourself to embrace diversity and learn about other cultures, the closer you get to the root cause of the patient’s issues and how to best serve that patient,” she says. “I want to understand my patients and what they’re going through on a personal level.”
Colón says she’s proud to receive her education from an institution that has shown a commitment to the values she holds dear. She says her generation has done much work in terms of challenging their own views and biases in order to provide the best patient care, but much still remains to be done to create a workforce that resembles the population it serves.
“There are still issues of underrepresentation in medical professions among minorities. However, I see growth. People with careers in medicine are starting to look like the patient population. Most medical schools are currently achieving gender equality among their students,” she says. “We’ve shown strides as a generation, and we’re not OK with being complacent.”
In summer of 2016, Colón served as a camp counselor at the Health Care Summer Institute, a UF College of Medicine pipeline program that immerses underrepresented minority students in the world of health care professions. This volunteer experience showed her the power of being a mentor to others. For Colón, Donna Parker, M.D. ’90, associate dean for diversity and health equity and an organizer of the annual UF College of Medicine Celebration of Diversity, serves as a shining example of how a mentor can impact the lives of others.
“There are lots of people with similar backgrounds as me who don’t have the opportunities I have. I hope to mentor others so they can achieve their dreams as well,” Colón says. “I look up to Dr. Parker. She makes an effort to embrace diversity and discuss these inequalities. I hope one day I can make an impact like hers and bridge the gap in access to health care in whatever field I enter into.”