September 18, 2017
The Gold Foundation sponsors fellowships each summer for medical students to complete a research or service project related to community health. The Gold Student Summer Fellowships focus on studying cultural competency issues, developing skills to become relationship-centered physicians, and addressing a public health need in an underserved community or population.
In 2017, nine Gold Student Summer Fellows received funding for projects all over the globe. One Gold Student Summer Fellow, Tiffany Huang, has been recording the stories of people living and working in North Lawndale, a neighborhood in Chicago. She is now a second-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Tiffany Huang, a 2017 Gold Student Summer Fellow, has been chronicling stories from North Lawndale, Chicago.
Tiffany Huang first moved to North Lawndale, a primarily poor and African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, in the summer of 2015, after she graduated college. She worked as an intern at Lawndale Christian Health Center, developing and piloting a scribing model for the clinic. An anchor for the community, the health center provides primary care and also includes a community garden and café, fitness and conference centers, and a live-in drug abuse rehabilitation program. Tiffany also lived in the neighborhood, a block away from the health center.
“Lawndale falls on the wrong side of every socioeconomic statistic,” Tiffany wrote in her application for the Gold Student Summer Fellowship: “38.6% of households are below the poverty line, the infant mortality rate is 14.1 per 1000 (more than double the national rate), the teen birth rate is 109 per 1000 (quadruple the national rate), annual per capita income is only $12, 034, and worse of all, in the last 12 months, there have been 37 homicides and 796 narcotics-related crimes committed within the small 3.2-square-mile neighborhood.”
“These harrowing statistics are the loudest voices out there right now about Lawndale—the ones you hear blaring out of your television set when yet another Facebook Live video of a triple murder breaks into the national news—but they only present a single dimension of a very complex story.”
This mural was painted by artist Sentrock on a garage in North Lawndale. Titled “From Struggle Comes Strength,” it embodies the spirit of the neighborhood. (Credit: Tiffany Huang)
Working and living in Lawndale changed Tiffany forever, dramatically altering the arc of her future career. She came to know her patients first as her neighbors, which allowed her to understand their lives and their challenges more fully.
“During my time there, I was inspired by the optimistic spirit of the community—despite the significant adversity that they face, the people of Lawndale continue to be united by a mission to revive their neighborhood, and each individual member of the community has a unique story to share,” Tiffany explained. “Determined to hear these stories, I reached out to coworkers and neighbors and began recording their oral histories.”
“The benefit of storytelling appeared to be multi-faceted — many of my new friends were eager to share their stories with me, often reflecting that the experience was cathartic, and implored me to spread their testimonies, so that others could benefit from their experiences. I took their directives to heart and began tape-recording their entire life histories, amassing a trove of raw material that I hope to polish into a distributable resource, so that others can experience Lawndale as I did. Maybe an impressionable teenager in the neighborhood going down the wrong road will make a right turn, maybe an outsider with a cold and fearful heart will warm a little, maybe someone with no mission in life will find one.”
The view of the Chicago skyline from the L tracks in Lawndale, a neighborhood so close and yet so far. (Credit: Tiffany Huang)
Eventually, Tiffany recorded 17 oral histories. After that summer in 2015, the stories remained mostly in their original raw audio form, some more than 2 hours long. The Gold Student Summer Fellowship allowed Tiffany to return to Lawndale in the summer of 2017, after her first year of medical school, and devote time to transcribing and converting them into forms that could be shared more widely.
“When it comes to understanding humanity in medicine, nothing compares to the power of the story,” she wrote in her fellowship application.
“After one of our HIV counselors, a former addict who graduated the health center’s rehab program, described to me the extreme agony of withdrawal, I will never think about heroin addiction the same way again. After one of our patients explained that losing himself in alcohol was the only way he could handle the tragic loss of his entire family, I will never think about alcoholism the same way again. After a young woman my age told me how the bruises on her knees came from trying to crawl away from her abuser, I will never think about domestic abuse the same way again. After a co-worker confided in me her great frustrations with navigating the convolutedness of multiple insurance companies, trying to provide her patients with the best services available in a deeply underserved area, I will never think about our insurance system the same way again.”
“There is simply nothing like the story to instantly and drastically convert someone from a sympathizer to an empathizer, and then to a compassionate actor.”
The Lawndale Christian Health Center provides so much more than primary care. Its facilities include a community garden and café, fitness and conference centers, and a live-in drug abuse rehabilitation program, and a basketball court, above. (Credit: Tiffany Huang)
Tiffany now has close to 30 interviews and about half transcribed. The audio quality is variable, and transcription process is lengthy, so she has begun enlisting help using the funding from the Gold Student Summer Fellowship.
The 2017 visit to Lawndale had a secondary effect now that Tiffany had experienced caring for patients as a first-year medical student in a setting so different from a neighborhood health center.
There, at Lawndale Christian Health Center, “it really felt like there was a mission to everything I was doing. Even in a little thing, like typing in an order, it really felt like the whole neighborhood was behind me,” Tiffany recalled.
“School isn’t really like that. School is a lot of books. School is a lot of studying on my own,” she said. “As a student, you listen to their heart, and then you never see them again.”
Her Gold Student Summer Fellowship brought her back into neighborhood and its deeper connections. “Going back to Lawndale reminded me: This isn’t what medicine is going to be like; this is just school,” explained Tiffany. “That was refreshing — to really remind myself why I wanted to go into medicine in the first place.”
If you’d like to support The Lawndale Stories, please reach out to Tiffany Huang at email@example.com.