SON students in Tyrell County for service trip

Each year a group of Carolina Nursing students join peers in UNC’s other health professions schools to head to the North Carolina coast on their spring breaks, but the goal is neither rest nor relaxation – it’s service learning.

For a decade now, these students have devoted their time off to the citizens of Tyrrell County, a small county in the Northeast corner of the state that is relatively under-resourced when it comes to the dedicated health and health-care resources needed for a healthy population.

Carolina’s health affairs schools have a long-standing relationship with Tyrrell County that has grown stronger with each passing year. This relationship brings them together each spring for an annual interprofessional service-learning trip where students in the UNC School of Nursing and the Department of Allied Health Sciences physical therapy and audiology programs use the skills they have learned at Carolina to promote strategies for better health outcomes for the residents. The Department of Allied Health Sciences is part of the UNC School of Medicine.

During this year’s trip, a record 25 students kept a rigorous schedule, juggling logistics as interprofessional teams offered health promotion and physical fitness activities at the schools, risk screening for falls, blood pressure and polypharmacy at the local senior center, home visits for people with complex health challenges, audiology screening and more.

Sonda Oppewal, RN, PhD, associate professor at the School of Nursing, leads the service-learning class that culminates in the trip. She is accompanied by Vicki Mercer, PT, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Physical Therapy; Hannah Siburt, AuD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences and Joanne Caye, PhD, MSW, an instructor at UNC’s School of Social Work. The class meetings prior to the trip focus on the county’s needs and health landscape, as well as the students’ proposed interventions for problems identified with community partners.

“For some students, it’s a very transformative experience,” says Oppewal, who has been leading immersive, interprofessional service-learning trips for 17 years. “The county is very agricultural, and there isn’t a lot of cell phone service. It can be a wake-up call that not everyone has the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Jenna Kazmaier, who will graduate with her Doctor of Physical Therapy from the Department of Allied Health Sciences this August, says working within an interdisciplinary team expanded her perspective of both individual and community needs.

“For me, the home visits made the greatest impact on how I plan to practice as a physical therapist. A person’s home, work space and community shape their lived experience and health status,” she says. “As a health care practitioner, it’s my goal to gain insight into this experience in order to provide the best medical care.”

Learning about social determinants of health emphasized for students the need to look at patients holistically and with consideration to their backgrounds and surroundings.

“This trip reinforced the importance of understanding the social determinants of health for the area being served,” says Lucia Resende, a Doctor of Nursing Practice student. “It emphasized that healthcare providers must understand individual needs of the population, be prepared to work with persons with special needs when few resources exist, and to fully obtain a socioeconomic history on future patients to better address their concerns.”

“I wanted to go on the trip to learn more about rural healthcare and working in settings with limited resources. I want to become a well-rounded provider that can provide culturally competent care to individuals from various backgrounds, and this opportunity allowed me to further develop into a person who can do that. It helped me learn better communication skills, and to be more open-minded.”

Melody Alexander
School of Nursing

“It was evident that all disciplines needed to work together in order to obtain the best results.  It was also noticeable that students and faculty from other disciplines had different opinions and solutions to problems, expending the groups’ ability to problem solve. Medical services in rural areas are scarce.  The majority of the population needs to drive longer than 30 minutes to obtain medical and dental care.  A vast need to increase the number of providers in rural areas exist.”

Lucia Resende
School of Nursing

“I learned how to incorporate the expertise of other professionals into my care delivery in order to provide the best outcomes for my patients. It helped me learn more about rural health and how to interact with other health professionals outside of my discipline. It encouraged me to delve deeper into the social determinants of health and how they play a role in the overall wellness of a person.”

Morenike Kritzer
School of Nursing