Day 4: Career Immersion Excursion Chicago

CIE students visited MATTER, a healthcare incubator.

So, I actually fell asleep in the middle of writing yesterday’s blog post, so even though we were supposed to get an extra half hour to rest, I ended up jolting awake at 5:30 a.m., hammering out a conclusion, and passing out again. When morning came, we packed our bags, checked out of the Hyatt Place, and made our way to Matter. As one of the staff members explained to us as we sat in their sleek, modern office areas, Matter works to help startups in healthcare by offering business workshops and creating partnerships with larger healthcare companies interested in their products.

We heard from a few Matter entrepreneurs about their work, and it’s exciting to think about the innovations that are going to change people’s lives. One entrepreneur shared with us his product CareBand, a simple wristband that can monitor a patient’s location within a house as well as outdoors without having to rely on Wifi. The product is designed to help caregivers find patients with dementia, who often wander off on their own, before a fatal accident can occur. If widely implemented, CareBand could enable those with dementia to live in their houses with loved ones for longer periods of time before transitioning to a long-term care facility. It was easy to tell how much this project mattered (semi-intentional pun) to him, and Matter was the organization that made it feasible.

Cassandra Phiri ’04 spoke with CIE students.

From Matter, we rode the ‘L’ train to Lawndale Christian Health Center, our final site visit. From the moment we stepped off the train, it was clear that this was a community in need of quality resources. Over half of Lawndale has a household income under $25,000 a year, and unemployment is rampant. It is here that Cassandra Phiri ’04 works as a physician’s assistant (PA) to provide quality care to those who otherwise would be unable to afford treatment.

Like so many alums on this trip, her career path was filled with twists and turns. After graduating with a psychology major and anthropology minor, she spent time in South Africa on a mission trip, where she met her future husband. She said that she chose to be a PA largely because of her indecisiveness, and she liked how PAs can hop from speciality to speciality very easily. I think that for those of us on this trip, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of possible careers being thrown at us, so it’s comforting to know that you can settle on a career and still have the freedom to change your mind.

Following a Q&A with Phiri, we met the panelists for our mental health panel. Despite the variety of careers they represented, from social workers for domestic violence victims to psychologists working with veterans, their views on the mental health field as a whole were strikingly similar. First, mental health services are painfully underfunded, and there is a great need to address mental illness in underprivileged populations. Second, the hope is that mental health care can be integrated with primary care; that is, an annual check-up at the doctor’s office could one day include having a conversation with a professional therapist. Given the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, it’s difficult for many people to have the courage to step into a mental health facility without knowing what to expect, so bringing mental health professionals to a familiar environment could go a long way to make mental illness feel just as valid as any other physical illness.

On a slightly tangential note, I was grateful to have the chance to speak briefly with one of the panelists, Dr. Herb Zerth, who works in emergency care at Hinsdale Hospital. My father has been taken to the ER at Hinsdale a few times over the years, and I’ve always been thankful for the quality care he’s received there. Many healthcare professionals see people at their very worst, and the things those people say aren’t always kind as a result, so I hope that you can take time to thank a healthcare provider for their hard work!

Fresh produce is available at the Lawndale Christian Health Center.

After lunch, we took a tour of LCHC facilities, and I say facilities with an ‘s’ because there is so much more to Lawndale than a single clinic. Walking down the street, you could see a whole row of social service buildings with a little cross logo and the acronym CHC, meaning that they are either affiliated with the Lawndale church or the health clinic. We started at the main clinic, which was built in the shell of an old warehouse that collapsed in the ’80s. I loved how it was designed specifically to meet the needs of the community; for example, a group of teenagers wanted a safe place to play basketball, but the roof of the clinic wasn’t high enough, so they spent a whole summer digging a space with the right dimensions for a basketball court. Walking through the clinic itself, we also noticed some rows of canvas photographs which turned out to be photos of people in the community. In doing so, the clinic wanted to send a message that its patients were beautiful and therefore worthy of being art, and I personally was moved by the meaning conveyed in that simple act.

Photos of people in the community line the walls at the Lawndale Christian Health Center.

But if you thought that LCHC was all waiting rooms and doctors’ offices, you’d be wrong. After taking a tour of their newly opened walk-in clinic, built to give people in need of immediate care an alternative to costly ER visits for minor problems, we tramped through the newly formed rain puddles to their cafe. A cafe, you ask? Why would a health clinic add a cafe? Has the world gone mad?! Well, I’m here to tell you that no, it hasn’t (yet), and apparently it’s tough to tell patients to eat healthier if all you’ve got lining the streets are convenience stores and fast food chains. Following that line of thought, above the cafe is a fitness center that provides equipment and classes for people to exercise their bodies, and just down the street is a farm (yes, a farm on Ogden Avenue of all places, for people to buy fresh produce). What’s more, the farm actually offers classes to teach residents how to start their own small farming business.

Overall, it was incredible to see LCHC’s holistic approach to healthcare in action, because it pushes the boundaries of what we even consider as healthcare. Everything they do makes sense, and it’s cost-efficient (seriously, these people somehow take runoff water from their parking lot to use as energy for buildings), and it’s effective in changing people’s lives, so it’s a wonder that we don’t see more community health clinics with similar programs.

The Lawndale Christian Health Center offers classes to teach residents how to start their own small farming business

On the ‘L’ ride back to our hotel to pick up our bags, I think the general consensus was that we were so glad for the trip to be done so that we could spend the rest of Spring Break relaxing, but we also wouldn’t have had this trip structured any other way. Hopefully these blogs illustrate that we managed to do so much during this trip, to the point where the mornings, afternoons, and evenings felt like completely separate days. I don’t think a single one of us could say that they didn’t get something valuable out of this experience.

To be honest, I remember being on the fence about even applying to the CIE program. I wasn’t pre-med, I wasn’t a nursing major, and I knew that the majority of the trip would be targeted toward students pursuing careers in those fields. I was there to meet a genetic counselor to find out if that was something I was truly interested in pursuing, maybe say hi to some mental health panelists, eat Chicago food, and that was it. That being said, I came away with so much more.

I kept finding myself amazed with how interested and engaged I felt throughout the entire trip. Early on I found myself in a cycle of thinking “wow, that was an incredible talk, I can’t believe how much I learned… but I bet the next one won’t be relevant to me at all.” Needless to say, I was proven wrong every time.

Because the fact of the matter is that healthcare is relevant for all of us. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers are often the easiest for people to take out their anger and frustration when something goes wrong or doesn’t seem fair. However, this trip helped me appreciate the fact that healthcare is a system that is amazing, complex, and more than a little broken, but there are thousands of people working to make it better in their own way. And because it’s this vast, sprawling mess that requires so many talented people behind the scenes to make it work, I think that pretty much anyone can find a place where their unique interests and talents are needed, whether that’s straight out of Illinois Wesleyan or ten years down the road. This trip ended up widening my possibilities rather than narrowing them, but I think that’s a very good thing. I can’t reiterate how happy I am that I made the decision to go.
In summary, to anyone interested in going on this trip in future years, I’d say to go for it and keep an open mind while you’re there. Because if you think you know exactly what you want to do in healthcare, or any other field for that matter, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you don’t, and the Career Immersion Excursion trip is definitely a place to start finding out.

Thank you all very much for reading along and sifting through my rambling thoughts. I can’t wait to read about all the exciting experiences that IWU students will have on this trip in future blogs!

–– Rachel McCarthy ’21

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