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Passionate, poised and professional. Those are the three words that came to mind when speaking to Elizabeth Chenoweth, president and co-founder of Southeastern University’s Pre-Health Service Organization (PHSO). Chenoweth created the organization in the fall of the 2008 and got if off the ground running in the spring of the following year with her best friend, Christa Abott, and her now-boyfriend, David Zipprer. All three were undergraduate pre-medical students at the time, with Abott and Zipprer now in medical school, and Chenoweth now a few weeks away from receiving her diploma from Southeastern.
Of the birth of the organization, Chenoweth said, “Well, our department [pre-med] is kind of young in its development, so I always had the idea to mentor underclassmen, but the actual idea for PHSO started when we realized we needed a pre-professional organization. We wanted to be able to mentor and have a club that gave a forum to talk about MCATS, interviews for medical schools and what medical schools and pharmacy schools actually wanted.”
Chenoweth also spoke of exactly how PHSO prepares pre-med students for the professional medical world. She said, “The biggest thing is accountability. All of us have big dreams and aspirations but few of us have someone other than our moms and teachers saying, ‘Remember that dream you had to go to medical school? Well, it’s still a reality and here’s what you have to do each semester to get closer to that dream becoming a reality.’”
The amount of work it takes to be a part of PHSO may surprise some, considering that every member is already dealing with the stresses of biology and chemistry classes that come along with being a pre-med student. Each member is required to complete 30 hours of community service every semester, of which many come from one clinic the members are able to pick on their own. However, they usually find their clinics on a list that the officers create after contacting local medical associations. Chenoweth added, “You need to be really good at networking in any profession and it’s something I’ve been blessed with the ability to do. It’s nice to use it to get people started with their projects.”
On how PHSO has changed her personal medical point of view, Chenoweth said, “Both in the way I interact with my peers and the way I interact with people [patients]. People have backgrounds and sensitivities they don’t share with you. I’ve worked with the homeless, low-income people and even people on the high end of things and there are different ways to communicate. People are not always as informed as you think they are.”
Chenoweth expanded on this subject by talking about a health fair PHSO put on in Miami over spring break. “We were teaching the women how to check their breasts for breast cancer and it was so overwhelming to me to realize that people didn’t know such a basic thing that can prevent cancer from being fatal in so many cases. I’ve learned to approach everyone with caution and without assumptions to the best of my ability, and to communicate beyond what our past is.”This led her to discuss when she knew she wanted to become a doctor. Chenoweth’s desire to be a pre-med student started to develop her sophomore year when she volunteered with Good Shepherd Hospice, a service for people who have six months or less to live. The patient that had the most impact on her was a mute woman who was unable to move. Chenoweth would sing hymns to her, she described her as a “good Polk County Baptist citizen who loved the hymns,” and her favorite was “Amazing Grace.”
Due to the patient’s love of hymns, Chenoweth would sing to her every week during her visiting hours. She remembers one day in particular and described it: “At the end of my song it just hit me, she started moving her hands and I realized that that was her response to my song and she was clapping, and in that moment I knew that I had done something for someone else that meant more than what words could communicate. That feeling was unreal and whenever I get stressed out about things in school I just think about that time that I was able to do something very intimate for somebody and what brought us together was that the person was sick.”
After talking about her motivation, Chenoweth moved on to her inspiration throughout her undergraduate years. She stressed the fact that committing your life to something as competitive and at times, discouraging, as medicine requires a solid support system. She credits both her parents and Dr. Sonya Danofft from Johns Hopkins medical school with filling that role for her. She said her mom is her “cheerleader,” and Dr. Danofft gave her an example of “the doctor [she] wants to be—someone who comes alongside someone in a rough spot and helps that person work to a better solution while staying on their level.”
So what are Chenoweth’s future plans for life post-graduation? First, she’ll be taking an internship doing research on malaria for the National Institute for Health (NIH) in Washington D.C. After that, she’ll be going to medical school at one of the many programs she plans on applying to, including Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Baylor, Northwestern, the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina and the University of South Florida.
One thing is for certain, with the passion Chenoweth shows when speaking about her organization, the poise she shows when discussing her future and the professionalism she shows when interacting with her patients and peers, she will have no trouble with her pursuit of a career in medicine.
The Pre-Health Service Organization was founded in 2010 by pre-med students at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla. The organization is dedicated to equipping students with the tools they need to enter the professional word of medicine, as well as contributing as much as possible to the local community. PHSO is fully led by students and has and will continue to make a mark both at the University and in the city of Lakeland. For more information contact Elizabeth Chenoweth at email@example.com or visit their blog.