Auburn and Other Sullivan Partner Schools Are Developing Rural Pharmacies in the Southeast

With a shortage of health care infrastructure, hospitals and specialty clinics in rural areas, significant health disparities exist for people in those communities. For many, the most accessible and well-positioned health care provider is the community pharmacist.

To help address this issue and provide innovative solutions, Dr. Salisa Westrick of Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy (HSOP) is collaborating with counterparts at several Sullivan Foundation partner schools to create the Rural Research Alliance of Community Pharmacies (RURAL-CP). These partner schools include the University of North Carolina, University of South Carolina and the University of Mississippi. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is participating in RURAL-CP as well.

Auburn is also a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

RURAL-CP is a network of more than 100 rural community pharmacies spanning five southeastern states and is the only network of its kind in the United States. Network members collaborate with colleges and schools of pharmacy to identify and address societal, community and professional issues that relate to medication use and pharmacy practice.

Related: Auburn University students use old-fashioned technology to help veterans get needed health care

“Prescription medications are key components of American healthcare, and pharmacists play a critical role in dispensing these medications, educating patients and ensuring patient safety,” said Westrick, Sterling Professor and department head in HSOP’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy. “In an area where there is no pharmacy, residents will not have timely access to prescription drugs nor access to pharmacists they can consult with when they have questions about their medications. Therefore, our work is to build strong evidence of the value and the impact of pharmacists on patient outcomes in rural communities.”

The project is headed up by Dr. Delesha Carpenter at North Carolina’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Working with Westrick at Auburn are fellow faculty members Dr. Lindsey Hohmann and Dr. Natalie Hohmann, along with students NeCall Wilson, Robert Alongi and Kavon Diggs.

(Photo by Dids from Pexel)

With more than 25 rural pharmacies already enrolled, Westrick and her team are continuing to work through the on-boarding process for network members, including a site survey and visit.

“These pharmacies and the academic institutions work together to identify and prioritize critical health concerns in rural communities,” Westrick said. “Together, we will identify and refine the solutions, assess the effectiveness and feasibility of the solutions and then disseminate the outcomes to various stakeholders.”

By joining the network, pharmacies will have access to continuing education programs and workshops addressing issues such as seasonal and non-seasonal immunizations, operations during a pandemic, naloxone counseling, medication therapy management for special populations and more.

The work in the network pharmacies will also drive multiple research projects, testing the effectiveness of certain interventions.

Related: Auburn’s Rural Medicine Program helps provide future doctors throughout Alabama

“These network pharmacies will serve as demonstration sites for innovative pharmacist-led services, and the patients whom they serve can and will benefit from these interventions,” said Westrick.

Living up to Auburn’s land-grant designation, Westrick and her team are working to improve the health outcomes of Alabamians through the network. With insurance practices and low profit margins on medications making it difficult for some rural pharmacies to stay open, the program provides an opportunity for members to diversify services and find new ways to generate revenue.

“Payments to community pharmacies and pharmacists for clinical services are not common, and we hope that RURAL-CP can serve as a catalyst to change the reimbursement landscape for community pharmacists’ services and allow pharmacists to get reimbursed for clinical services they provide in their pharmacies,” Westrick said.

“It is also important to recognize that community pharmacies in rural areas are critical components of the community,” she added. “By assisting rural pharmacists and pharmacies, we ensure that Alabamians in rural areas continue to have access to their pharmacy and their trusted pharmacists.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

Auburn Pharmacy Students Use Old-Fashioned Technology to Help Veterans Get Needed Health Care

By Matt Crouch, Auburn University

Embracing technology, students and faculty at Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy (HSOP) are fulfilling their commitment to deliver accessible health care for Alabama’s veterans through the Population Health Clinic.

The clinic is a collaboration between Auburn’s Pharmaceutical Care Center, located within the Harrison School of Pharmacy, and the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center.

The innovative clinic was recently recognized by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), receiving the NACDS Foundation Scholarship Award, one of just five awarded in 2020 out of more than 140 submissions. It marks the third year in a row for HSOP to win one of the NACDS awards.

Related: Auburn’s Rural Medicine Program helps provide future doctors throughout Alabama

“The Population Health Clinic is a great example of how our outstanding faculty and students are working to develop innovative health care programs to improve the health outcomes of those in Alabama and beyond,” said Richard A. Hansen, dean of the Harrison School of Pharmacy. “This is a very well-deserved honor, recognizing a meaningful collaboration between the Harrison School of Pharmacy and the Veterans Administration.”

Pharmacy students working in the clinic review electronic health records to identify patients who would benefit from medication adjustments, immunizations or laboratory monitoring.

After identifying these patients and reviewing the information with their preceptor, students contact the veterans by telephone to discuss the findings from the record review.

“We are thankful that NACDS Foundation has provided the opportunity to expand our population health-based telepharmacy service to meet the needs of a rural veteran population and to develop a care model that can be translated to other pharmacy settings,” said Courtney Gamston, professor of experiential practice and a member of the HSOP Class of 2013. “The need for telepharmacy has never been more apparent, and population management is an efficient way to identify the patients at greatest need for these services.”

this photo shows an Alabama military veteran who could benefit from the Population Health Clinic at Auburn University.

Auburn pharmacy students’ work with the Population Health Clinic have resulted in almost 2,000 interventions to help veterans get the health care they need. (Photo by John Mark Smith of Unsplash)

During the 2019-20 academic year, students reviewed nearly 900 patient records and contacted more than 200 individuals. Their efforts resulted in almost 2,000 interventions, including ordering labs, recommending and ordering hundreds of vaccines, initiating new medications, providing medication and disease state counseling, providing prescription extensions to maintain chronic medication adherence, referring to other providers for additional care, and performing annual Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) reviews.

Even with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the innovative structure of the clinic allowed students to continue working with patients and providing care at a time when many needed it most, Gamston said. “The educational experience for the students also emphasizes how tools like telehealth and embracing technology can allow them to continue providing care to their patients under unique circumstances.”

HSOP has a long-standing relationship with the VA system in Alabama, with students rotating at clinic sites and faculty members collaborating on outreach projects. Being familiar with the relationship, Garrett Aikens, a member of the HSOP Class of 2011 and the associate chief of pharmacy at the Tuscaloosa VA, reached out to discuss his telehealth program and identify opportunities for students to work with the veteran population.

Related: Auburn’s Valarie Thomas leads team providing free medical care to patients in Ghana

“This experience is valuable because it allows students to connect what they learn in the classroom to the real world,” Gamston said. “They apply their knowledge in a slower-paced, more controlled environment early in the educational process. Doing so allows them to see the value of their education, as well as how they can use that education to positively impact the health of their patients.”

Aikens actively uses telehealth in his practice at the VA and sees the benefits every day, particularly with patients in rural areas.

“Telemedicine has provided many patients the option for more immediate access to their health care providers, particularly in west Alabama, where over a third of our veterans are considered rural and would have to travel long distances for an appointment or are physically disabled, making travel difficult or not an option,” Aikens said.

The Population Health Clinic employs the practice of looking at a certain population as a whole and utilizing statistics and analytical data to identify ways of helping patients.

Pharmacists play an important role in the country’s healthcare system, and Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University is preparing the next generation of pharmacists to better care for veterans. (Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash)

After reviewing statistics, those in the clinic can develop strategies for intervention. Common areas analyzed could include vaccination rates, medication adherence, appropriate medication therapy, the need for laboratory evaluation and many others.

In the project with the VA, students are looking at patient care centered around cardiovascular disease risk reduction.

While this experience offers a valuable learning opportunity for students, it also provides a service for a respected population that may not always have easy access to health care.

“Patients can live several hours away from the closest clinic location,” said Pamela Stamm, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice. “Telephonic care improves patient access to health care and can also reduce the time they need to travel to and from the clinic for an appointment.”

Related: Paxton Peacock, Natalie Conboy and Chris Nunn receive Sullivan Awards at Auburn

“While we have these patients on the phone, we can address other questions or concerns they may have,” Stamm added. “This program has also allowed us to connect with patients who have been out of care and are due for clinical appointments and/or labs and to get them linked back in with their care teams.”

For students, the experience provides a real-world opportunity to engage with patients and help improve health outcomes within an innovative practice structure. For some, the ability to work with a patient population like veterans makes it even more special.

“The Population Health Clinic provided me with an opportunity to help serve our veterans, a patient population that is very important to me since my father was in the military for over 20 years,” said Callie Seales, a member of the HSOP Class of 2022. “These veterans usually have a wide range of medical conditions, and I believe this program allows us to make a difference in their overall health and quality of care. I know that some of my interventions made a meaningful impact for these patients, and I really enjoyed the overall experience in the clinic.”

Leaning on Auburn’s land-grant mission, the clinic embraces the opportunity to assist this population and improve their health outcomes.

“Working with the veteran population, students have gained perspective into the needs of this community and realized just how much care and attention its members need,” Gamston said. “They have really enjoyed being able to be a part of bridging gaps in care and moving their patients towards improved health.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

After Decades of Serving Others, Leigh Mayberry Is Set to Earn Degree from University of Alabama

By Melissa Parker, University of Alabama

From being the first in her family to attend college to spending years traveling to the far ends of the world serving those in need, Leigh Mayberry has lived a life full of ambition and adventure.

She’s experienced things many people only dream of, and in just a few days, Mayberry will check another item off her bucket list when she graduates from the University of Alabama, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“It’s always been a dream,” said Mayberry, who grew up in a home where her dad’s cherished picture of Bear Bryant adorned the walls alongside the family photos. “I consider it a privilege to even get to go to school and learn, and then to throw in the prestige of the University of Alabama, a place I grew up loving and is just in my blood. I’m just thankful God provided a way.”

Leigh Mayberry stands in her front yard along Lewis Smith Lake in northern Alabama, where she and her husband plan to build a cabin and start a little farm.

Born and raised a coal miner’s daughter in a small town in Walker County, Alabama, after high school she attended Northwest Alabama Community College, now Northwest-Shoals, and became a registered nurse.

Related: University of Alabama senior DeMarcus Rudolph creates greeting cards to cheer up nursing home residents

Mayberry felt a calling to live her life helping those in need, so she spent the next 25 years doing just that.

She was working as a nurse in Tennessee where she met her husband, Mike, also a nurse, and the pair dedicated much of their free time to exploring the world.

“We’ve always loved to travel,” said Mayberry, who has gone on annual mission trips to Honduras for the past 14 years. “We’ve traveled a lot in Mexico, Central America and South America. We love the outdoors and hiking. But we also love indigenous people, learning about their culture and working with and serving them.”

this photo shows University of Alabama nursing graduate Leigh Mayberry and her husband Mike hiking the Appalachian trail.

After their adventures in Alaska, Leigh Mayberry and her husband, Mike, spent eight months hiking the Appalachian trail.

They wanted to make a deeper impact, specifically among native people, so Mayberry and her husband became travel nurses. They bought an Airstream trailer and headed west to work with the Native American tribes of Comanche, Apache, Kiowa and Navajo.

The Mayberrys, who find direction in life from a deep faith in God, then set out on what was perhaps their greatest adventure yet.

Related: University of Alabama student Kana Webb organizes relief effort for Hurricane Laura victims

“My husband used to be a commercial crab fisherman, and he wanted to go back to Alaska,” she said. “We knew that the villages near the Arctic Circle were far removed from civilization. We’d get to serve the natives, learn about their culture and maybe even make a difference. It was a wonderful opportunity.”

For three years, they lived in the town of Barrow, now Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in Alaska, a place known for its extreme temperatures, 66 days of winter darkness and regular polar bear encounters.

Mayberry worked for a program that trained the Iñupiat people in six remote subsistence villages, reachable only by bush plane, to provide medical care for their own village people. She was forever impacted by their way of life, especially the sense of community they value.

“The people were so warm and welcoming and treated us like family,” Mayberry said. “They cared for me, shared their food with me, taught me how to protect myself in the villages. I learned more from them than they ever learned from me, and it was so humbling to be a part of their community.”

Mayberry and her husband moved back to Alabama a few years ago. She decided to further her education and enrolled in UA’s RN to BSN distance learning program, which she completed in just one year.

“Life is full of obstacles,” she said. “But I feel so blessed that I was able to go to community college, get my RN, travel the world and have many great jobs. And now here I am, 50 years old, about to graduate from the University of Alabama.”

this photo depicts Leigh Mayberry, an Alabama nurse, on a hike with her father, Rick, in the Sipsey Wilderness

Mayberry and her father, Rick, enjoy a hike by Borden Creek in the Sipsey Wilderness.

And Mayberry’s dad—her greatest fan and one of UA’s biggest supporters, whose first phrase after surviving throat cancer was “Roll Tide”—will be there with beaming eyes, cheering her on.

Although she doesn’t know exactly what the future will look like, she knows she’ll spend it giving back. “I feel like I didn’t have all these experiences to not share them with others,” said Mayberry, who hopes to teach one day. “I’m not sure exactly where God’s going to lead me next, but maybe my experiences can inspire and motivate others.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Alabama website.

Furman University Professor Co-Creates Mobile App for Parents of Children With Cancer

Tatum Fettig doesn’t expect and would never want you to understand what she and her husband, Jeff, have gone through since their daughter, Teagan, was diagnosed with brain cancer on Dec. 5, 2016—the day after her second birthday.

“Nobody wants to be a part of this club,” she said. “It’s the place you do not want to live.”

But the unchangeable fact was that they were members forever, and Tatum soon realized that being in the club was about the only thing worse than feeling so alone inside. They desperately needed hope and to find people who could comprehend what they were going through, But, due to HIPAA rules for protecting patients’ privacy, doctors could not provide that kind of information, and Tatum was disappointed with the limitations of the support she found on social media.

Related: #NoahNation Foundation helps kids fight cancer with medically adapted pajamas

“Tate and I thought there had to be a way to leverage technology to allow parents to find other parents and connect with them in the way that they want to,” said Meghan Slining, Tatum’s sister and an associate professor of health sciences at Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University. “That’s how this whole idea actually started.”

The idea became reality in August with the launch of Community Heals (CoHeals), the world’s first mobile app designed to connect parents and caregivers who have children with cancer. Unlike traditional social media platforms and other online groups, CoHeals allows users complete control over with whom they interact and how, providing the opportunity for highly specific connections based on diagnoses, treatment stages, age and gender. There is even a geolocation option for in-person meetings.

Research has shown that this kind of interaction between parents and caregivers is important to mental health, because only others in the same situation can truly validate their feelings and understand the overwhelming stress they’re experiencing. These connections also provide sources of information and other resources.

this is a photo of Meghan Slining, who helped create the CoHeals app for parents of children with cancer

Meghan Slining is an associate professor of health sciences at Furman University

“I spent a lot of time with my sister in the hospital, and so many friends are doing everything they can to help my sister’s family,” Slining said. “But none of us know what she’s going through, and the doctor can’t say if the person in the room right next to you has the exact same cancer.”

Teagan had medulloblastoma, which, despite being the most common cancerous brain tumor in children, is a rare condition. Coincidence allowed Fettig to meet another mother in Seattle Children’s Hospital whose son also had medulloblastoma. The relationship they forged—as Teagan suffered through a dangerous nine-hour surgery, six months of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments and countless appointments with therapists—made Fettig realize she had to find a way to bring other people in their situation together.

Soon thereafter she, Slining and their father, Tom Slining, formed Sweet Tea Cancer Connections (STCC), a Seattle-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to figure out how to do just that, even though none of them really knew where to start.

“When you face life or death, you say to yourself, ‘I don’t have a clue, and I don’t care,’” Fettig said. “I have a background in high school counseling. This learning curve is something that I’ve welcomed, because Teagan has been struggling a lot and there’s something to be said about giving some purpose to the pain.”

Once STCC began sharing Teagan’s story and asking for help, it flowed in—free of charge. Two groups of graduate students at the University of Washington developed the framework for the app and created a marketing plan, while Slining has brought an interdisciplinary group of researchers together from across the country to address a severe shortage of knowledge and resources for people in her sister’s position.

Related: Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient Malik Seals on a quest to cure multiple sclerosis

“We need money for a cure. Yes, we do. But that’s kind of what blew my mind as a scientist: How little money is going toward supporting these families,” Slining said. “This is unfortunate that there are so few people doing work in this area, but we feel good that we got some of the leading thought leaders on our team.”

Slining has also found support across a broad spectrum of the Furman community. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute named STCC the top faculty/staff presentation at the 2019 Innovation Hour. Meanwhile, the Furman Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship featured CoHeals in a two-part episode of its Class E Podcast while also serving as a consistent source of guidance about getting a startup off the ground.

A number of Slining’s former and current students have also gotten involved, including Alexa Morse and Sydney Beason as well as five new interns this academic year: Eli Titherington, Anne Kirby, Ana Rederson, Lauren Allen and Hannah Perkins.

Alexa Morse

Morse, a program manager for the Global Center for Medical Innovation in Atlanta, has volunteered as a business advisor for STCC. “Meghan and Tatum have done an amazing job identifying a need and building a meaningful solution to solve that need,” Morse said. “They’ve been open to every collaborative opportunity and have taken the time to get buy-in from champions and receive input from stakeholders. They’re truly an inspiring team, and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of their journey.”

Beason is a public health major at Furman and a cancer survivor herself. Although Slining was her advisor, she didn’t learn about CoHeals until attending a CLP featuring Slining as one of the panelists.

“She was talking about this Sweet Tea Cancer Connections, and my jaw was on the floor. I was over the moon about what she was talking about,” Beason, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said. “I had been diagnosed with cancer when I was 17, so since then I have been set on fire to give back to this community that helped me through.”

Related: Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient beat breast cancer and helps other Black women do the same

That has included creating projects in a digital storytelling class to help spread Teagan’s story and illustrate how her diagnoses led to the CoHeals app.

“I have to say, that time in the hospital can be very daunting and lonely, and it’s a lot on parents. Outside of those hospital doors people are there to give you meals and help you in different ways, but they can’t relate to you on any sort of closeness at that level,” Beason, who hopes to go into clinical research, said. “By connecting with Dr. Slining and this team, I was healing through my own journey because I was giving back.”

this is the photo of little Teagan Fettig, a six-year-old cancer survivor, using her walker to get around

Teagan Fettig has been cancer-free for four years.

Teagan’s sixth birthday is tomorrow, one day before her four-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Every six months for at least the next 20 years doctors will make sure it has stayed that way with sedated MRIs, and her rehabilitation road remains long. But CoHeals has helped Fettig keep moving forward, and she hopes now the app will empower others to do the same.

“We are so grateful for birthdays and the true celebration of life they are,” Fettig said. “Somehow my daughter is still alive, and I didn’t think that was going to be possible. How can you truly enjoy life and every moment? Because you think about that all the time. So the hope is that the app will not only connect but also contribute to some of the research to help our community.”

Donations to Sweat Tea Cancer Connection and the CoHeals app can be made here.

This story has been edited from the original version appearing on the Furman University website.

Brenau University’s Pen-Pal Program Helps Elderly People With Memory Problems

By Kathryne Davis, Brenau University

The Women’s College of Brenau University’s GOLD Program last month initiated a pen-pal project to help bring back happy memories for residents of a local home for senior adults.

The GOLDen Grams pen-pal project workshop resulted in more than 150 postcards designed and written by students. Debra Dobkins, dean of The Women’s College, said the cards would be delivered to The Phoenix at Lake Lanier, a senior living center in Gainesville, Ga., where they will be used as therapeutic aids for residents in the memory care unit. For example, Dobkins said, Phoenix will throw parties focused on the cards to help seniors recall their days of writing vacation and holiday cards.

The Women’s College intends to expand the pen pal program as other senior facilities are eager to partner.

Related: How Brenau University helps unseen and forgotten populations survive the pandemic


“The therapeutic uses our partners at Phoenix have imagined for our first batch of postcards is inspiring and humbling,” Dobkins said. “I’d thought we might be sending cheery notes that could be pinned on a bulletin board, but instead they have envisioned many ways in which the cards can be used. It is really exciting that we can bring this sunshine into [residents’] lives and serve practical purposes to help improve their functionality.”

Annabelle Lee, a junior finance major in The Women’s College, said she had a lot of fun making the postcards. “I was so impressed with the easy set-up, fun options and clear COVID-19 procedures,” she said. “I felt very safe while making them.”

I’m not a very crafty person, but sitting at a round table with some of my friends and enjoying the time seeing other people on campus made it a blast,” Lee added. “I loved drawing and writing letters. It was very relaxing before finals week.”

This article has been edited and condensed from the original version appearing on the Brenau University website.

Auburn’s Rural Medicine Program Helps Provide Future Doctors Throughout Alabama

By Neal Reid, Auburn University

Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University’s long history of helping mold Alabama’s physicians of tomorrow continued this semester with a talented group of students ready to dedicate themselves to serving their local communities through the Rural Medicine Program (RMP).

As part of a collaboration with the University of Alabama School of Medicine, or UASOM, Auburn’s RMP serves as a crucial first step for students transitioning from the undergraduate realm to medical school. Now in its 15th year in Auburn, RMP is a sister program of the University of Alabama’s Rural Medical Scholars Program, or RMSP, that dates back nearly three decades.

Related: Auburn’s Valarie Thomas leads team providing free medical care to patients in Ghana

RMP provides a year of pre-matriculation instruction and experience that prepares future physicians for the rigors of medical school, while serving as a pathway for them to begin their journeys to life as a rural doctor.

“It’s a bridge between college and medical school,” said Larry Wit, the program’s academic director. “Auburn has a long history, through the College of Sciences and Math, of preparing students well for medical school.”

Through Auburn’s program, students who want to become physicians in rural areas of Alabama can receive streamlined instruction in key subjects like biology, gain practical experience via lab sessions and by working in clinics, and learn what to expect from medical school. RMP is the beginning, with students then moving on to two years at the UASOM in Birmingham before finishing with two years of clinical clerkships in Huntsville.

Wit helps RMP students tailor their pre-matriculation instruction at Auburn to get the most out of their time on the Plains, and not every student’s class schedule looks the same.

“Since these students come from different institutions and different backgrounds, there are some courses all of them take, but not all of them take the same courses,” Wit said. “We plan their studies like we would if they were in graduate school. We look at their backgrounds, strengths and weakness and develop a curriculum around that to try and better prepare them for medical school.”

“I help shore up their sciences to get them ready,” Wit added.

Laura Catherine Cresswell—who earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville in May—has hit the ground running during her year at Auburn.

“It really is an awesome opportunity for people who know they want to go into rural medicine,” said Cresswell, who hails from the 8,300-resident town of Arab, Alabama. “When I first heard about the program, what really interested me was the pre-matriculation year, because I thought the year would be good for me to get more biology classes since I was a chemical engineering major.”

First-year Rural Medicine Program student Laura Catherine Cresswell, from Arab, Ala., is enjoying her pre-matriculation year at Auburn as she embarks on her journey toward being a physician.

“I already knew my intentions of wanting to practice rural medicine, and the program just made me realize it more,” Creswell said. “I think this program is really going to help expose me to a lot more and show me what I need to expect with rural medicine.”

Pre-matriculation-year courses like Clinical Applications—taught by RMP Medical Director Dr. Keith Bufford—give students practical insight into rural medicine and are an integral part of their instruction at Auburn.

Featuring the motto “Preparing You to Help Your Neighbor,” the program’s foundational goal, Wit says, is to help fill a never-ending need for physicians in rural Alabama.

“We all participate in this with the objective, ultimately, of improving the lot of people who live in small towns in rural Alabama, in terms of the disparity that exists with their health care,” said Wit, professor emeritus and associate dean emeritus of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM. “One of the great challenges of getting people in rural medicine is not just to produce more doctors, but to produce doctors who will go and practice in those areas. Our desire is that, at the end of the day when they’re done with their training, they are primary care physicians practicing in some rural area or small town in Alabama.”

Related: Meet the 2020 recipients of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Auburn University

Auburn thoroughly scrutinizes its RMP applicants, limiting each year’s group to roughly a dozen. They must come from small towns in Alabama, have an inherent desire to serve rural communities and meet the strict requirements of medical school. Students do not sign contracts to commit to RMP, instead buying into the program’s honor system as they take their first step toward becoming doctors.

“Most people don’t go back to places like that unless they grow up there,” Wit said. “It has to be part of their DNA, and it almost has to be a calling. So that’s why we’re so particular about who we take.”

Dr. David Bramm—who practiced family medicine in rural Mississippi before returning to his hometown of Huntsville years ago—heads up the state’s RMP program. He agrees that it takes a special type of student to dedicate themselves to serving the state’s most marginalized populations.

“We want to find the student with the right stuff,” said Bramm, who practiced in Centreville, Miss., a town of approximately 1,400. “We want them to have the demeanor, the personality, love, understanding and compassion to be family physicians, but also the intellectual capacity and the stick-to-it-iveness to get through medical school.”

this photo shows Jayci Hamrick, a third-year student in Auburn's Rural Medicine Program

Jayci Hamrick, who hails from Haleyville, Ala., is in her third year of Auburn’s Rural Medicine Program and hopes to return to her hometown as a physician.

One of those students, third-year program participant Jayci Hamrick, is well on her way toward helping those in need in her hometown of Haleyville, Ala. She entered the program after earning a biomedical engineering degree from UAB in 2018 and relishes the opportunity to one day return to the town of roughly 4,000 as a family medicine practitioner.

“I really want to go back to my hometown,” Hamrick said. “I loved growing up there and loved being raised in a small town. There are not many physicians that will be left in my hometown after I graduate, because they’re getting ready to retire. So, I’d like to go and give back to the community I come from.”

Related: Auburn University professor’s research aims to make more efficient use of solar energy

Most Alabama counties have a significant shortage of physicians, and Wit described the need as “unbelievable” and constant. Bramm agrees.

“Of the general population of medical students nationwide, surveys have shown only about 3 percent of doctors want to or plan to go practice in a small town,” said Bramm, who said Auburn has been a conduit for 114 of the 143 RMP participants through the years.

Bramm has been inspired by the quality of students who have come through the RMP program. “They’re so smart, and they have such a capacity for learning,” he said. “They’re exactly what you want your kids to be. I should have retired five years ago, but I love working with the students too much. It’s so much fun.”

Wit also finds his role with RMP immensely fulfilling and feels proud to see the students evolve into dedicated doctors. “I’ve gone and visited a couple of them, and you feel like a proud papa when you see them in action,” Wit said. “These are good kids who are the salt of the Earth, they really are. They don’t have a sense of entitlement. They’re just hard-working Alabama folks.”

The program—especially the first year at Auburn—is particularly inspiring for the students as well. “I 100-percent love the program,” Hamrick said. “I don’t know if I could have just jumped right in coming from undergrad to med school, and it really helped prepare me. If I could go back and go through the program again, I’d do it.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

How Warren Wilson College Stayed COVID-Free in the Fall Semester

Warren Wilson College, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, has finished the fall semester with no positive on-campus cases of COVID-19. Warren Wilson was the only college in Western North Carolina to have no positive cases within its residential community this semester.

“The fact that we were able to have zero cases this semester is mind-blowing,” said Justin Gildner, director of safety and risk management at Warren Wilson. He led the school’s Pandemic Response Team of 13 staff members from across multiple departments. “Every week I told the team to hold their breath and keep doing what they’re doing. We took it one day at a time.”

Warren Wilson College’s free tuition plan results in record freshman enrollment

The college had extensive health and safety measures in place, including daily temperature checks and a modified academic schedule that ended classes by Thanksgiving and moved finals online. Throughout the semester, most classes were partially taught online. Many classes that met in-person utilized the school’s 1,150-acre campus for outdoor classrooms.

Warren Wilson College was the only college in Western North Carolina that canceled all competitive athletics at the beginning of the fall semester. “It was disappointing not to play this semester during my senior year on the team, but it was the right call,” said Ethan Vanderbleek, a student who serves as captain of the men’s soccer team. “I would have liked to play, but I’m glad the school put our safety first. It was decisions like these that made it possible to keep us at zero cases.”

Warren Wilson College’s Student Health Ambassadors played a key role in keeping the campus COVID-free.

Five Warren Wilson students served as Student Health Ambassadors through a program with the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) and other regional colleges. They completed rigorous COVID-19 training and supported the community by planning wellness programming, distributing information, supporting students who were feeling anxious or in quarantine, and facilitating a pen-pal program with students from other colleges.

Partway through the semester, also in partnership with MAHEC, Warren Wilson began offering regular testing to student athletes. Last week, in conjunction with a program sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the college started offering students and employees the opportunity to have an antigen COVID test before leaving campus for Winter Break.

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“I am grateful for our community, for the ways we have demonstrated courage and resilience during this challenging semester,” said Lynn Morton, Warren Wilson College’s president. “I am exceedingly grateful that we made it to this week without the outbreaks of COVID that have so seriously affected other campuses. In the end, we were able to ensure the health and safety of our campus because of the students, faculty and staff who took the virus seriously and followed our health and safety protocols. We are extremely grateful for the sacrifices everyone made to prioritize safety this semester.”

The college remains dedicated to exploring all avenues and partnerships for testing to continue to ensure the health and safety of students next semester. “We believe that our rural location in the North Carolina mountains, combined with our small population, low student-to-faculty ratio, and large 1,150-acre campus, will continue to enable us to minimize risks while providing a safe place to live and learn,” Morton said.

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Warren Wilson College website.

University of Alabama Creates Free Program to Help Children With Disabilities and Developmental Delays

photo credit: ~Rich Johnson~ The Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida’s Step Up for Down Syndrome via photopin (license)

Most would agree that parenting, though joyous, isn’t an easy undertaking. Parenting children with disabilities can be even more difficult at times. That’s why professionals at the University of Alabama, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, are offering support to families of young children with disabilities or developmental delays free of cost through a new early intervention program, called EI@UA, funded through the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services.

“EI@UA is an early intervention program through Alabama’s Early Intervention System that provides special education and related services to infants and toddlers under the age of 3 and their families,” said Dr. Kimberly Tomeny, program director of EI@UA and a clinical assistant professor of special education and multiple abilities.

Tomeny said the program works by partnering with families of children who need their services to support them in their everyday lives and routines. They do this by determining the family’s specific goals for their children or the family as a whole and work to help them achieve those goals.

“If a parent has concerns about their child talking, for example, we would work with them within the context of their routines like family meals, diaper changes, bath time and outings,” Tomeny said. “We talk about strategies they can use regularly to support the child and family within that routine.”

“We provide intervention that addresses the child’s overall development, not just one specific developmental area,” she said.

The team consists of professionals from various backgrounds such as early childhood special education, speech-language pathology and physical therapy. The primary interventionists partner with families to develop goals and implement strategies that help the child function in the family’s routines, such as mealtimes or getting dressed.

“Parents or caregivers are with the children regularly, and it’s really beneficial for them to be the ones to implement the strategies that we jointly come up with,” Tomeny said. “It really is a collaborative process, and the goal is to support children and families during the many hours that the interventionist is not with them throughout the week.”

Anyone can make a referral to UA’s early intervention program. If parents, pediatricians or other caregivers or professionals have a concern about a child under the age of 3, they can contact EI@UA to find out if the child is eligible for services.

Currently, all services are being administered remotely through Zoom.

EI@UA can be reached by email at or by phone at (205) 348-4714. The program’s hours are flexible as needed. For more information, visit EI@UA’s website.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Alabama website.

This College Student’s Class Assignment Inspired a New Law in South Carolina

By Chris Horn, University of South Carolina

Most school assignments get turned in for a grade and are soon forgotten. But the speech Gweneth Gough wrote for a class at the University of South Carolina, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, became the foundation for new legislation recently signed by the governor.

Gough’s speech focused on ways to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health on college campuses, an issue the Summerville, S.C., native takes personally after having lost several friends and classmates to suicide and struggling with depression herself.

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“There is a tremendous number of people right now struggling with mental health issues,” says Gough, a public relations major. “We are having a mental health crisis, especially with our youth, and we are seeing younger students taking their own lives and struggling with mental illness.”

Gough shared her speech with South Carolina State Rep. J.A. Moore (D-Berkeley and Charleston counties), who suggested they meet to draft language for legislative bills on the topic, adapting it to the needs of middle and high school students. What emerged was a bill entitled the Health Education Act, which calls for mental health instruction in health classes for 7th and 9th graders. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law earlier this fall.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Gough said her own junior high and high school experiences would have been better if such courses had been mandated.

“I think it would have made the school itself a lot more of an inclusive environment,” Gough said. “I feel like people would have talked to each other more whenever they felt like they were struggling. It’s not something that is taught or that people have talked about in high school and middle school, but with the Health Education Act in place, it’s going to bring the realization to a lot of kids that this is something that is real and serious. And it’s not something that they have to deal with alone.”

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According to TV news station WMBF, which reported on the legislation when it was introduced in January, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people in South Carolina. A survey of South Carolina teens by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 33 percent of teens reported feeling sad or hopeless during the year 2019. Worse, almost 20 percent had contemplated suicide during the same period, and 15 percent had come up with a plan.

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the problem for many students, Gough said, by decreasing social contact and intensifying feelings of isolation.

“If you’re living at home and you live in a bad household, you aren’t leaving—you’re pretty much stuck there,” she said. “And nobody is going out and socializing either. So everyone’s kind of feeling isolated, and I think that’s why we’re also seeing a spike in suicides.”

Gough hopes to use her degree in public relations to advance the push for improved mental health resources. “I would like to be a lobbyist, working towards the betterment of mental health, not only for schools but for society as a whole,” she said.

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of South Carolina website.

Auburn’s Valarie Thomas Leads Team Providing Free Medical Care to Patients in Ghana

By Shelby Julien, Auburn University

Although she did not fully understand what it meant, at 12 years old Valarie Thomas knew one thing for sure—her true calling was to become a nurse. She could not shake the feeling of wanting to help others through their worst moments.

“I did not know much about nursing and wasn’t even really sure what it all entailed, but I just knew that it was for me,” said Thomas, an associate clinical professor in the School of Nursing at Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University. “It was a gut feeling that I carried with me daily.”

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Thomas recently received the 2020 Lillian Holland Harvey Award, presented by the Alabama State Nurses Association to a nurse who has made significant contributions in fostering transcultural relations, promoting the advancement of minority groups and upgrading healthcare services offered to those who are economically disadvantaged.

The Camp Hill, Ala., native received the award for her work with the Ghana Healthcare Program at Auburn and her accomplishments as chair of the School of Nursing’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The Ghana Healthcare Program, which is offered by University Outreach Global, gives nursing students an opportunity to get hands-on learning experience while volunteering at health clinics and hospitals in Ghana for five to seven days each spring.

“The work in Ghana is difficult, and the travel is hard, but we love every minute of it,” Thomas said. “The students who have attended have been absolutely amazing. We have seen over 3,000 residents in the past three years, with nearly 1,800 of those seen this spring before COVID-19.”

An Auburn School of Nursing student checks a patient’s pulse at a medical facility in Ghana.

Besides making her mark abroad, Thomas also has made herself known as a voice for change on Auburn’s campus. “As the chair of the … Diversity and Inclusion Committee, I’m responsible for ensuring the school’s diversity action plan remains alive and operable,” she said. “Our goal is to provide the school with a voice relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Thomas’ goals for the committee are to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty and student population while promoting cultural competence in the classroom and clinical setting.

Thomas has worked toward those goals since she joined the Auburn family in 2012 as a clinical lecturer. With 26 years of nursing experience under her belt, Thomas has plenty of knowledge and advice to pass on to Auburn nursing students.

She was inspired to become a nurse after she and her seven siblings watched her father suffer through several illnesses. Since then, Thomas has devoted her life to taking care of others and teaching the next generation of health care workers.

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She earned her doctorate of nursing practice in organizational leadership and master’s degree in nursing education from Walden University. Her students have twice nominated her for the Outstanding Faculty Award.

“It has been a privilege to serve so many others at their worst moments,” Thomas said. “I’m a firm believer that we are at our happiest moments when we are helping others. We are made to serve others, and through this service, our own needs are met.”

Valarie Thomas

However, for Thomas, nursing is more than just healing physical wounds and illnesses. It’s about caring for the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of her patients and their families. “My favorite part about being a nurse is pulling up a chair or sitting on the edge of my patients’ beds and allowing them to just talk,” Thomas said. “I want them to know they can trust me with their thoughts and feelings, even in their most frightening moments.”

Thomas’ faith and compassion for others is what inspired her to write the recently published book, “A Woman of Purpose, Finding Self and Making a Difference.”

“I wanted to bring my past to light in hopes of setting others free,” Thomas said. “We often lose ourselves in others trying to make people happy at our own expense. I needed to get my story out in the open in hopes of helping others become mentally, emotionally and spiritually free.”

Although Thomas has loved every minute of her time as a teacher, she plans on focusing the next chapter of her life on her writing career. “I love teaching, but I do plan to decrease my hours as an educator and focus more on ministry and writing,” she said. “I have a lot to say in efforts to bring healing to others. I would like to become a public speaker with some aspect of motivating others to take the journey towards freedom. I have no doubt that I will do just that.”

This story has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.