Empowering All-Around Advocates by Maya McKeown

When I reflect on who I was at the beginning of the service term compared to now, I feel like I have a much better understanding of myself and the impact I intend to have on communities as a physician and advocate. Perhaps some of that comes with time, adjustment to a new life in Philly, and a support network both near and far, but a large majority of this feeling of empowerment comes from eye-opening interactions at Health Center 5, coaching some wild 3-8th grade girls through Girls on the Run, and the numerous NHC training and networking opportunities.

My parents and grandparents instilled in me a passion for social justice early on. My interest in medicine and healthcare more broadly didn’t take flight until my sister’s leukemia diagnosis in high school. However, it wasn’t until NHC that I truly feel like I found a place of work (or service!) that so beautifully blends the mission to better the community and expand opportunities in a direct and meaningful way through the delivery of healthcare and wellness – two things I’m passionate about put into practice.

I’ve always known that our country still struggles with income inequality, racial discrimination, and a complicated, expensive healthcare system that fails to adequately provide for the most vulnerable in society, however, I was fortunate (read: white, middle class, well educated) to avoid such injustices. After working with patients who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence, lived through numerous house fires, or have children in lacking schools with ceilings coated with lead-based paint, and yet still struggle to get food stamps to combat food insecurity or get assistance navigating the donut hole in Medicare drug coverage, I can’t help but feel angered about what I see and its antecedents - the deeper-rooted, historic and systemic injustices unevenly distributed on low-income, minority neighborhoods like where I live and serve in North Philly.

One could see how well-intended policymakers, without contact experiences and sustained interactions, may lack robust awareness or a strong understanding of the daily lives and culture of our most vulnerable in society. As a patient advocate, I'm thankful that almost every day brings a new realization of a life and culture different from my own. My NHC experience, rife with socio-cultural education and community insight, has given me a stronger platform from which to advocate about “change” more broadly. Especially after learning how deeply intertwined social services are with better health outcomes, this service term has significantly bolstered my support in education reform, increased after-school programming, criminal justice reform, restructuring an inadequate healthcare system, and many other causes. I even voted in my first local election which I’m embarrassed to say as a 23-year-old!

All in all, I feel aware, confident in the power of my own voice, and excited to focus on my future medical career, equally emphasizing social justice and wellness in my personal and professional life. As a future physician, I recognize that handing someone a prescription does not mean they will be able to afford medications. As a future policy maker (hopefully!) I know that decisions made with communities are much more just and sustainable than decisions made for communities.  After this year, I am grateful to NHC for empowering me to ask questions, listen wholeheartedly to patients and colleagues, and be an outspoken advocate and citizen in order to make change.