Preparing tomorrow’s healers to act with compassion and justice

SAN ANTONIO (May 19, 2011) — Before entering the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Robin Reister knew she wanted to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

But it was during her four-year medical education that those “vague aspirations,” as she describes them, took shape. She went on medical mission trips to Ethiopia and India, worked in a free medical clinic for San Antonio women recovering from drug addiction, and provided health education and screening to impoverished families along the Texas-Mexico border.

She experienced all of this thanks to the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the UT Health Science Center.

“The activities I was involved in made me see what is possible,” said Reister, who graduates this Saturday from the School of Medicine. In June, she heads to Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., for a residency in social medicine, which unites medicine and social justice.

Since its creation in 2002, the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics has sought to preserve students’ innate idealism and empathy through years of training. Director Ruth Berggren, M.D., assumed her current role in fall 2007 just as the School of Medicine class graduating this weekend arrived on campus.

Under Dr. Berggren’s direction, the center has expanded offerings in community service learning and global health while giving students a place to reflect on their experiences.

“Introducing students to diverse patients and health care settings, both in our own country and others, gives them context that will make them better health professionals,” Dr. Berggren said. “Health care in the United States is changing – it has to change. These students will be ready for the challenges ahead.”

The Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics’ efforts in community service learning recently landed the UT Health Science Center on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the second consecutive year. The distinction from the Corporation for National and Community Service recognizes the role universities play in addressing social problems.

The center means something different to each student. For students already committed to working in underserved communities, the center offers many ways to pursue that calling. Other students might not have given much thought to global or public health work; for them, the center might spark interests they never knew they had. The center has created a community of like-minded students and teachers, allowing them to have a larger impact than each might have had individually.

And whether a career path leads to private practice or an impoverished village in a distant country, the students will be more empathic and culturally aware for having these experiences.

Megan Gray, who also graduates from the School of Medicine this weekend, knew before she arrived at the UT Health Science Center that she wanted a career in public health. During her medical education, she has gone on medical mission trips to Haiti and India through the center, as well as to Australia and Nicaragua on her own.

Gray helped organize diabetes screenings at San Antonio grocery stores through the student-run Preventive Medicine Interest Group, which receives support from the center. Through the center, she took classes on preparing for global health work and on poverty, health and disease.

The center “was an obvious vehicle for applying public health in real-world settings,” said Gray, who will do an advocacy –pediatric residency at Children’s National Medical Center that will take her into low-income areas in the Southeast section of Washington, D.C.

Gray and Reister traveled to India on the Paul Brand International Medicine Scholarship, a competitive award from the center. Both women also were inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society, an initiative of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation.

When the time came to pursue residency, Reister said her experiences through the center came in handy: “I never had a lack of things to talk about at my interviews. People were so interested.”

She considered a program in Portland, Ore., where she had wanted to live. But when she visited the Program of Social Medicine in the Bronx, “it just seemed like where I needed to be.”

Reister considers Dr. Berggren a mentor and said the center has always helped turn her ideas into realities. As she ponders her future career, the center may have influenced her in another way: “I’d really like to teach. I’d like to be involved in a place where I can do something like this.”

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $228 million in fiscal year 2010. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $744 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

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