Schweitzer fellowshipOne McGovern Medical School student is turning her interest in the health of the homeless into action. An Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Elizabeth Mercer is collaborating with Baylor College of Medicine student Diana Whitney to provide safety kits for at-risk women in Houston.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is a yearlong, mentored program that supports students to complete a community-based project addressing an unmet health need of an underserved population in the Houston-Galveston area. Twelve Fellows are selected each year, and each Fellow is supported by an academic mentor and a community site mentor.

Mercer and Whitney surveyed homeless women and found that personal safety and domestic violence are two issues that most affect this population. To address these concerns, their Schweitzer Fellowship project includes holding free self-defense classes at the Beacon, a Houston-area day center, and distributing safety kits with emergency cell phones. The cell phones will dial 911 at the click of a button for women to use in domestic violence/unsafe situations on the street.

“One of the first lessons I learned when we started working with the women at the Beacon Day Center was that I needed to be a better listener. I would ask them questions, but instead of listening for an answer, I was preparing my next question. Listening is an important tool for a physician, and it is something the Fellowship can help me improve for my future patients,” Mercer said.

Mercer added that her time management skills have become more focused as a result of the Schweitzer fellowship.

“You create a timeline of what you hope to achieve and when, but as I’ve learned, timelines are the ideal not the reality,” she said. “It took us a lot longer than we anticipated to tease out from the surveys what the women were most concerned about.  We could have just decided menstrual hygiene was the biggest issue since that is what we thought would be the result. However, our goal going into the project was to let the women speak up and be heard. They are the experts, not us.”

One of the homeless women told Mercer, “kind words is medicine sometimes.”

“To me, this sums up our project – how we should treat others and how we as future physicians should interact with patients,” Mercer said.

Cell phones for the safety kits are being collected to be wiped and programmed to only call 911. To donate, please drop off phones in the box provided at the Office of Student Affairs and Admissions,  MSB G400.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship accepts project proposals in all areas of health. Applications are welcome between now and Feb. 1. The new Fellowship year begins in April 2016.