Center for Community Engagement

Internship Postcards: Sophia Meyerson '13

August 2012—story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Sophia Meyerson ’13

For Sophia Meyerson ’13, there’s never been any doubt about her future profession. The history major from Concord, Massachusetts has simply always known she wanted to be a physician. “I came to Amherst knowing I’d be pre-med,” Meyerson says. What wasn’t always clear to Meyerson, however, was what her career as a doctor might look like. A chance internet search two years ago changed that for Meyerson— profoundly.

“I was just randomly looking at internship possibilities,” she says. “I found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and I really hadn't been exposed to public health or health care for under-served populations. I decided to go for it.”

The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) is no ordinary non-profit. Founded in 1984, the organization offers integrated health care for people who are homeless in the Boston area. Through primary, dental, and mental health care, BCHP is able to address what are often interconnected medical problems: chronic illnesses, substance abuse, and psychiatric conditions. Primarily based on a 77,000 square foot facility, BHCHP has a wide reach: according to their website, in 2010, they served over 11,000 patients in 900,000 unique encounters. Health care providers with BHCHP place a heavy emphasis on preventative care— something that Meyerson admires and hopes to emulate one day.

During her first summer at BHCHP, Meyerson worked at the organization's Barbara McGinnis House, a medical respite facility for patients needing specialized care. "People stay overnight at this medical center because they're not sick enough to be hospitalized, but it's not safe for them to be on the streets or in shelters," Meyerson explains. On average, a patient spends about a month at the center, but stays can range anywhere from one night to a full year. Meyerson worked side by side with the center's case managers, assisting with patient intake and discharge. "We [got] an overview of what a patient needed while in care, and we tried to plan the best option available once the patient was discharged. I really got to have a lot of patient interaction and I was given a lot of responsibilities." Meyerson quickly realized that she wasn’t simply interested in medicine; she was passionate about eradicating public health disparities. "I became interested in a lot of new things I hadn't really thought about: Spanish, immigration, and primary care for people who are under-served." When Meyerson returned to Amherst, she began to learn Spanish and intentionally sought out opportunities to work on public health disparities.

Meyerson’s internship experience was so transformative in 2010, choosing how to spend this summer wasn’t difficult. “I decided that since I had such a good experience two years ago, I really wanted to go back.” With Meyerson’s interests "a little bit more cemented” in the field of primary care, she’s been able to explore what primary care really means— and how to go about doing it. Each morning, she works for four hours in BHCHP’s foot care clinic. Patients drop in, have their feet soaked, and receive a free pair of socks. Foot care is vital for people who are homeless "just because they're on their feet constantly and they have one pair of shoes," notes Meyerson. The clinic provides basic amenities, including Band-Aids and foot cream. "It's made me really appreciate the importance of basic care— things that you wouldn't think are exciting or important to do, but they actually can really be the most important." The other simple genius behind the foot clinic is that it does so much more than take care of patients' feet. "We can track patients who have high blood pressure and make sure they're taking their medicine. We can catch drug overdoses if we notice something in the vital signs. We can manage diabetes because we take blood sugars on our diabetic patients. We look up every single patient's records to make sure they've been immunized and we give immunizations right there. It's a great way of doing preventative care under a different pretext."

In the afternoons, Meyerson alternates between helping with medical paperwork, working as a patient navigator in the clinics, and teaching an English language course to the migrant worker community at the Suffolk Downs Racetrack. BHCHP runs a small clinic for the thousands of workers who either live at the track or are homeless, and with Meyerson’s help, they are beginning to offer basic English classes.

At times, Meyerson has felt the challenge of being a young professional. “I always find it difficult to reprimand or assert authority because I’m so young,” she says. “Some of the patients have anger or mental issues, and it's hard to interact appropriately. But I’m happy to practice it.” By far, the most rewarding aspect of her internship has been working in the foot clinic. “It's really made me appreciate a different outlook for medical care. It's very effective. It's been exciting to be a little part of that.”

This fall, Meyerson will begin working on a history thesis investigating health inequalities in immigrant communities in western Massachusetts. She plans to “use history as a tool” to understand why certain communities experience noticeable health disparities. Meyerson won’t simply delve into historical records, either: she plans to work directly with patients and health care providers to understand current health care challenges.

Two years after her first internship with BHCHP, Meyerson now has a pretty good idea what her future career will look like.

This summer, 182 students interned in 13 countries, 12 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico through the Center for Community Engagement’s summer internship programs. Each day this week, we’ll share a different internship postcard. Today's postcard is from Sophia Meyerson ’13, a rising senior who interned for the second time with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program in Boston, Massachusetts. Meyerson is a Civic Engagement Scholar.

Jenny Morgan is  a staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.