Community outreach inspires salutatorian to think outside the clinic

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The aspiring surgeon has helped the homeless get to medical appointments and find available resources — and he’s just getting started

Every week, Sammy Cohen heads to Skid Row, the part of Downtown Los Angeles known for its large homeless population.

Roughly 5,000 folks live on the streets there, according to a 2017 count.

Working at homeless shelters, Cohen, 21, stands close as doctors perform checkups and give referrals to homeless patients. It’s part of the Mobile Clinic at USC program.

“There’s not a lot of places you can get those hands-on experiences,” said Cohen, a USC senior and one of the two USC 2018 salutatorians, who has plans to be a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

Working on Skid Row, Cohen noticed that while patients wanted to continue treatment, getting to doctor’s appointments across town was difficult.

“They didn’t have a way to get there,” he said, adding that public transit was unpredictable.

Cohen came up with an idea: What if student volunteers helped them get to the appointments?

“That increased the follow-up rate from 15 percent to over 95 percent now,” he said.

They use Uber, which reimburses rides the students take with the homeless patients.

Riding together has been a way to build rapport with the patients, many who have lost trust in doctors or the health care system, said Cohen, who is majoring in health promotion and disease prevention at the Keck School of Medicine of USC with a minor in health care studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Read the full story on USC News »

Q&A

Why did you choose the degree program you’re in?

I chose the Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion & Disease Prevention from the Keck School of Medicine of USC because it emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to medicine. I knew that I was going to need to learn core sciences like biology, chemistry and physics in preparation for medical school, but I wanted my other courses to focus on the human components of medicine in a more intimate setting. I wanted to learn about cultural competence, Eastern and alternative medicine, and the social determinants of health because regardless of how well we can regurgitate information from textbooks, if we cannot interact with our patients and connect and communicate with them on a personal level, our scientific knowledge is rendered useless.

What has been your biggest accomplishment in the time you pursued this degree?

I feel my biggest accomplishments have occurred outside of the classroom. For the student organization USC Mobile Clinic, I created a program where undergraduates such as myself transport homeless patients to follow up medical appointments after we set up primary care clinics at local homeless shelters. I developed a meaningful relationship with one of the patients whom I met through the program and worked with him to secure permanent housing. The message he sent to me the day he received the news that he would no longer be homeless was one of my greatest moments at USC.

Another one of my biggest accomplishments stemmed from the research I conducted at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles studying the social determinants of health. The research I performed confirmed that there were many unmet non-medical needs of families visiting the Emergency Department such as a need for food banks, primary care doctors and safe housing services. I presented my research at the Pediatric Academic Societies international conference and have worked with my research mentors to launch a community resources help desk in the CHLA Emergency Department so that families can learn about community resources in their area. The help desk will be run by USC students via a directed research course that I helped to create. The course is at full occupancy for next semester!

What’s an important lesson you learned?

My experiences both in the CHLA Emergency Department and working with the homeless population have taught me the art of listening before judging. This lesson was poignantly conveyed by a homeless man I befriended, who, I was shocked to discover, has a doctorate from UCLA. Unfortunate circumstances had left him homeless and needy. His story was far more common than I previously believed, teaching me the perils of stereotyping and reinforcing the concept that behind every patient is a story that must be told and heard.

What’s one of your favorite memories from the time spent in your program?

One of my favorite memories from my time spent in the program was working with the other Keck Student Ambassadors at the Los Angeles Food Bank. This was an amazing opportunity to bond with the other KSA members while giving back to the community. The several hours that we worked there early on Saturday mornings exemplified to me what it means to be a member of the Trojan Family: to create and participate in programs that migrate beyond USC’s gates to advance a greater good.

What are you doing after you graduate?

After I graduate, I will continue my work at CHLA, ensuring the smooth launch of the CHLA CHAT (Community Health Advocates Team) program in the Emergency Department. I will also continue my work at USC and act as an advisor for the USC Mobile Clinic, Keck Student Ambassadors, and WorldMed @ UPC organizations that were so instrumental to my college career. I will then apply to medical school and aspire to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon

What do you look forward to in your career path?

I’ve realized from my time at USC that although science is integral to any health profession, what makes the field of medicine so desirable is the people who compose it. Every day I go to work I will have the opportunity to improve the lives of those whom I interact with. I especially look forward to the first patient whom I heal, which will make the hours of hard work and dedication required to break into the field absolutely worth it.

What advice do you give to future grads?

I would advise future graduates to take advantage of USC’s unique location by constantly searching for opportunities to serve the community. The most important lessons that I’ve learned at USC have come from experiences in the community rather than in the classroom. Additionally, by joining organizations early in your college career, you will find a community of students who have similar interests as you, enabling you to meet friends that make a school of nearly 17,000 undergrads feel more like home.

— by Joanna Clay

(USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)