ETSU’s Quillen medical students to help those affected by wildfires in Gatlinburg

Members of the Period 5 Community Medicine clerkship in front of a ‘Health Wagon.’ Quillen students traveled to Wise, Virginia, and Clintwood, Virginia, to help the Health Wagon staff conduct free health clinics for area residents who are not insured. (Source: East Tennessee State University)

SEVIERVILLE, TN – East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine students taking part in a community medicine clerkship in Sevierville are working on a project to help address the ongoing needs of those impacted by the devastating wildfires that occurred in the area late last year.

Period 5 students, from left to right, Kaitlyn Burrichter, Nathan Cantrell, Megan Maier and Kristian Cantrell, working at a health fair. (Source: East Tennessee State University)

“Working in the health clinics there, patient after patient came in and would talk about how the fires affected them, even all of these months later,” said rising fourth-year medical student Becky Roland. “So many people were affected, even if their own homes or businesses didn’t burn down. I realized that East Tennesseans are strong people, but they may still have a hard time coping.”

Groups of approximately 10 ETSU medical students rotate through the Sevierville clerkship for six weeks at a time. The project began with the students who were working in Sevierville just a month and a half after the wildfires ripped through the region, destroying homes, businesses and a large part of the city of Gatlinburg.

That group set to work creating a needs assessment of the community by conducting a survey focused particularly on mental health needs. The assessment revealed a need for more education about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and assistance in getting individuals directed to resources that could help those potentially suffering from PTSD.

“A lot of these folks have never heard of PTSD or think it is something that only happens to people who go to war,” Roland said. “Plus, right now, there’s a lot of people without work or insurance, and then there’s the stigma that surrounds mental health. It’s a perfect storm where people don’t know what they can do to get help once they realize they didn’t just bounce back from this.”

At the end of February, the second clerkship group carried on the project, advancing it through the creation of educational and informational materials.

“We read the needs assessment the first group did and chose to create an educational pamphlet that targets the medically underserved population in that region,” Roland said. “The goal was to create a pamphlet that included educational materials, questions for them to use to conduct a self-assessment and a list of resources available in the community.”

The medical students also produced a Spanish-language version of the pamphlet in order to reach more people who might be in need of help. The group then determined initial distribution points for the pamphlet.

In May, a third group headed to Sevierville to start the clerkship program. Those students are continuing with the project by executing the actual distribution of the pamphlets. So far, five students have distributed more than 2,300 flyers throughout Sevier County with distribution scheduled to continue through July. The group also will conduct follow-up work and research the effectiveness of the overall project.

“This has been a really fulfilling project,” Roland said. “We really just wanted to get the word out that it is normal to feel that way and there is help out there. Hopefully, this pamphlet can do that.”

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