(Above) Project Access care coordinators help Nancy Bell navigate her medical care.
The Medical Foundation of Chattanooga
Nancy Bell became legally blind after an injury to her eyes led to infection. Over time, the published author who owned more than 6,000 books couldn’t read any of them due to her blindness.
“I spent two years living in the dark, and you can’t imagine what that did to my psyche,” says Bell. “I was afraid I would spend the rest of my life having to be cared for by others, but through Project Access, I was able to receive surgery and now have 20/20 vision again!”
Bell received care from two Project Access volunteer physicians, Dr. Steven Thomas and Dr. Richard Breazeale, and is one of more than 21,600 people who have been helped by Project Access since its inception in 2004. Today, 1,140 physician volunteers and providers participate in the program and provide care in virtually every specialty area. Project Access assisted 4,787 individuals in fiscal 2019-2020 alone.
Project Access is a signature program of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society. The organization is devoted to improving community health and work on a variety of fronts, including the Future Docs Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine and Medical Exploration program.
Dr. Mark Brzezienski created the Future Docs program in 2006 during his term as Medical Society president. “We wanted to create a mentorship opportunity to encourage our best and brightest students to consider careers in medicine,” he says.
The Future Docs program has two components – the week-long Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine, which allows rising high school seniors and recent graduates to hear presentations on all aspects of medicine and to shadow a different physician every day during the program, and the Medical Exploration program, which provides a longer, more intensive shadowing and lecture opportunity for college students.
Robert Kropp, a fourth-year medical student at the UT Health Science Center, said the program had a huge impact on his decision to pursue medicine.
“I am a first-generation college student, and I didn’t have any exposure to medicine until I participated in the Future Docs and Medical Exploration programs in my third year in college,” Kropp says. “Through the Future Docs program, I was able to explore many different specialties with many doctors and understand my options. It really had an impact on my decision to go to medical school.”
With the mentorship aspect of the program being so impactful on him, Kropp now participates in a peer mentorship program in medical school. Attracting talented students like Kropp to consider careers in medicine is the precise goal of Future Docs.
“We’ve had students go on to medical school, residencies, PhD programs, and MBA programs,” says Dr. Brzezienski. “One student even came back to work with me as a research assistant. The seed we planted in 2006 has now blossomed into one of the most popular programs that the Medical Society has created.”
Collaborating to Improve Community Health
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society was founded in 1883, yet it has never before seen a year quite like 2020. CEO Rae Bond and many member physicians have spent most of the year serving on the COVID-19 Joint Task Force and other advisory roles.
“We’ve had students go on to medical school, residencies, PhD programs, and MBA programs. The seed we planted in 2006 has now blossomed into one of the most popular programs that the Medical Society has created.”
Doctors Kelly Arnold, Carlos Baleerio, Keith Helton, Robert Magill, Sanford Sharp, Jay Sizemore, Chris Young, David Alvarez, Mark Anderson, David Bruce, Lisa Smith, and Adam Soufleris have all donated their time and expertise to developing innovative solutions to this year’s biggest problem: the novel coronavirus.
Medical Society member and Hamilton County health officer Dr. Paul Hendricks knows better than anyone the toll that this virus has taken. “COVID-19 has had a major impact on our community and our world in the past year. We grieve for those we have lost to this disease and offer our deepest sympathies to their families. I am constantly impressed with the hardworking employees of the Hamilton County Health Department for their efforts in fighting this pandemic, and I’m thankful for Mayor Jim Coppinger’s leadership,” explains Dr. Hendricks. “I also appreciate the support and hard work of our local medical community and all of our front-line medical workers. I urge all citizens to keep up the fight and am optimistic that the New Year will bring good news in the fight against this virus.”
East Side Elementary Walking Track
In 2020, the Medical Society and Medical Foundation underwent a joint strategic planning process to guide their work over the next few years. The focus on improving access to care and improving community health continues as a pivotal priority, according to Bond. “We have added a focus on improving health by improving nutrition, especially for children,” she says. “That led to providing a lead gift to help start the new Brainerd Community Food Pantry, which provides food boxes to individuals and families two Wednesdays a month at the Brainerd United Methodist Church.”
Dr. James Haynes, Medical Society president, notes that nutrition is an important part of overall health and wellness, particularly in young people. “Food insecurity is a serious issue in our community at large and one that has only been heightened by the pandemic,” he says.
Another initiative to improve community health has been the addition of a new walking path at East Side Elementary School – a project that was the result of a partnership between the Medical Foundation, Hamilton County Health Department, and Hamilton County Schools. Through the Healthy Living Fund, resources were coordinated to create the walking path, which provides a safe place to walk and exercise in an area with limited outdoor resources.
Brainerd Community Food Pantry
LifeBridge and Physician Well-Being
The mental health and wellness of our healthcare professionals has never been tested more than during 2020. Long hours, crowded hospitals, and a rapidly spreading virus have put a strain on the well-being of the ones we count on. In 2018, the Medical Foundation and Medical Society launched a program called LifeBridge to address the well-being of physicians and to help prevent burnout. Little did they know how much it would be needed this year.
LifeBridge grew out of the tragic suicide of a long-time physician in the community, and his death was a defining moment when physicians came together through the Medical Society to develop the program.
“Since the program began two years ago, we have held motivational events, conducted research on the state of physician well-being here at home, and launched a wonderful free counseling resource for physicians, residents, and medical students,” says Dr. Mukta Panda, co-chair of the LifeBridge Physician Well-Being Task Force. “We want to provide a safe haven for physicians to get the encouragement and support they need as we all face unprecedented challenges in medicine today.”
Next year, LifeBridge plans to launch a Mayo Clinic Well-Being Index tool to help medical professionals do a self-check and to provide ongoing data to shape future programming.
“Life’s not about just powering through; it’s about having a safe harbor to empower and equip you to take care of yourself as well as your patients. That is LifeBridge,” says Dr. Panda.
With a long history of promoting community health and supporting the practice of medicine, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Foundation work to provide leadership in a variety of ways.
“This year we have focused on supporting medical practices as they deal with COVID-19, promoting positive health messaging in our ‘Ask a Doctor’ column, caring for patients through Project Access, and supporting physicians through LifeBridge,” explains Bond. “We face new challenges every year, but our medical community continually steps forward to provide quality medical care and to collaborate on initiatives that improve the health of our community.” HS