Connecting through service
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine M3 Thomas Ueland connects with patients, peers, and people in need
By: Lexie Little
Approximately 157.5 miles from third-year medical student Thomas Ueland’s hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, sits the merged mining towns of Fleming-Neon. Rains ravaged Neon in early August, flooding businesses, homes, and roads with more than 10 feet of water in certain areas. Colored in hues of ruddy and muddy brown and scattered with debris, the town needed help to clean – walls, windows, wounds, and well-worn hands.
Hand sanitizer was one solution. But from where would it come?
Sitting 306.3 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, Ueland received a message from M4 James Jordano, co-director of Shade Tree Clinic. A Vanderbilt University Medical Center employee involved in Eastern Kentucky ministries had called asking if the student-run free clinic could help gather supplies for the decimated town. Ueland serves as co-president of REMEDY, another student-run group that collects unused and unexpired surgical supplies to reduce hospital waste and provide essential items elsewhere. With a mission to “Recover Medical Equipment for the Developing World,” he and classmates like Arulita Gupta gather supplies from VUMC to send to developing countries and areas in need, not unlike Neon.
“The opportunity just came out of nowhere, to be honest,” Ueland said. “James was really the mastermind behind all of this, getting groups coordinated, putting the pieces together, and making it happen. He and Shauna [McLaughlin] do a great job co-directing Shade Tree. [James] reached out to people who might have supplies. Shade Tree had a ton of items they were able to mobilize and donate, and through the REMEDY group, Arulita and I help to coordinate a group of students that keep tabs on unused surgical supplies as well as labs that might have unused medical equipment. REMEDY was able to contribute items as well. It’s amazing when things work out as it did in this case because we collectively had the supplies they needed, and Kentucky is just a drive away.”
Ueland volunteered to drive supplies himself, coordinating a drop off in Lexington with the daughter of Tammy Collett, RN, regional director at the non-profit Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation. Within the span of one week, a single call turned into a relief effort realized through coordination between Vanderbilt and the rural health center.
Though this trip took him home, Ueland hopes to make a global difference in his career. Between his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame and medical school, Ueland worked in Atlanta at Peachtree Orthopaedic Clinic. There, he conducted clinical research for a hip, foot, and ankle specialist. His work piqued his interest in surgery, which eventually led him to REMEDY.
“Every year, the MD program hosts and organization fair and pitch night where student organizations get a minute or so to say who they are and what they do. I knew coming into medical school that I had a surgical interest,” he said. “I wanted to explore that area more. I heard REMEDY leaders talk about what they did, and it seemed like a simple but tangible effort to reduce hospital waste while also giving surgical supplies a second home, often in a surgical space. We’re fortunate to have student interest and a great group to help grow it since.”
During the past year, REMEDY has collected more than 12,000 medical supplies to donate to communities in need. Teams of physicians, surgeons, and public health professionals travel from VUMC all over the globe to provide necessary care. REMEDY has helped coordinate supplies for teams traveling to South America and Africa, some sites more than 8,000 miles away.
Arulita Gupta strongly believes in her team’s mission and in her co-president.
“Thomas is an exceptionally thoughtful and hardworking leader, and it has been an absolute joy working alongside him,” she said. “Working together to mobilize our team and forge connections throughout VUMC with folks interested in global health has been a really rewarding experience.”
Though Ueland entered medical school with familiarity in orthopaedics, he found new interests in general surgery and global surgery through his studies and work with REMEDY. During second-year clerkship rotations, students gain exposure to six core areas: medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), neurology, psychiatry, and surgery.
The surgical clerkship exposed Ueland to procedures and patients he would not have encountered prior to medical school and opened a pathway for new possibilities.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some great clinicians and surgeons here, and that’s more where my interests lie now,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about the Vandy curriculum; you get more time to flesh out your interests and explore different specialties during the second-year clerkship rotations and two immersion years…Global surgery as a field has come more to the forefront, I think even more so than like 15-20 years ago. More training and long-term practice opportunities exist, and there is growing focus on equity, bidirectionality, and local perspectives in forming these international relationships. Vanderbilt has a number of incredible partnerships, with AIC Kijabe Hospital in Kenya, being one that comes to mind as a sustainable model that extends across multiple specialties. It’s an exciting, rapidly evolving space that I hope to stay involved with moving forward.
“Looking back at the past year of clerkships, it was refreshing to get a first-hand glimpse into the breadth in medicine. Getting to spend six weeks in many specialties, we could go from delivering a baby one week to working with a liver or heart transplant the next week, then work with an addictions clinic soon after. The specialties are vastly different in terms of scope of practice, day-to-day life, and patient population, and I think it really holds true that there is something for everyone in this field.”
In the meantime, the former Noter Dame soccer player plans to balance his studies and outside interests like cooking with continuing community efforts, from work with REMEDY to encouraging others to play an active role in efforts like those at Shade Tree Clinic.
He hopes students, residents, and attendings will continue to get involved. He said REMEDY plans to advertise a few events during the year and encourages anyone interested to visit the organization’s Anchor Link page or reach out directly. He also gives much credit to Shade Tree for both its community impact and the ability to learn.
“Shade Tree is something that is advertised frequently, but it’s advertised with good reason. There are a lot of opportunities at all levels of clinical training – from medical student to attending – to work and learn in a unique clinical environment while serving members of your community. You can hone skills, but your impact can sometimes go beyond, and Shade Tree reaching out to REMEDY is just one example of that. You might not learn how to better practice medicine, but you can play a role in care elsewhere in the community, and it’s energizing to be part of something like that.”
Ueland and Jordano appreciate the combined efforts of their teams in providing supplies to those who need them, both acknowledging each person’s role in the process.
Jordano likewise hopes to sustain involvement and uphold his classmates’ work in the community.
“Thomas is an incredible example of Vanderbilt’s commitment to serving the community,” he said. “Organizations like REMEDY and Shade Tree Clinic have only been so successful thanks to the passionate and dedicated members that comprise them. These volunteers work tirelessly and selflessly to make individual and societal change in the community. That ‘community’ continues to grow, now expanding beyond the state of Tennessee with this latest initiative. But no matter how large our scope becomes, I am very confident VUSM students will carry the mantle well, treating every patient as their own neighbor and friend.”
For both organizations, that process starts by identifying a need, no matter how far away.
“I think it’s important to learn what people actually need,” Ueland said. “If we’re sending supplies that might end up in a landfill, we’re wasting their time and our resources. We can take care of a lot of that on the front end, figuring out what groups that are going abroad or to disaster areas will actually need once they get there. We can also identify which labs or operating rooms might be able to consistently supply what they need. It all goes back to making connections so that we’re not just sending a token, taking a picture, and moving on.
“We want to make a difference.”
A difference that starts at home.