House Call builds connection and understanding between learners and incarcerated women ​

Women togetherBeing incarcerated could cause someone to develop feelings of physical isolation and disconnection from others. Programs like House Call, in which medical students at The Ohio State University College of Medicine provide health education and artistic outlets to women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), are designed to alleviate that loneliness. It brings female prisoners together with medical students to build connections, understanding and protection from social withdrawal and adverse psychological effects.

Third-year medical student Ellena Privitera has been involved in street outreach for a free clinic in her community. Her experience working with underserved populations prepared her to share her insight and experience at ORW. She says being in a community with people in a different situation than hers keeps her grounded.

House Call provides a platform for us all to be heard,” Privitera says. “And it helps us grow as we prepare to be future physicians.”

As part of their curriculum, learners complete a yearlong community health education project, with the objective of improving the health of a specific underserved population in a clinic or agency in the greater central Ohio community. House Call introduces learners to population-based medicine and allows them to identify the needs of the population with which they are working.

At a recent House Call meeting in mid-December 2023 at ORW, the medical students broke the ice by sharing their own thoughts and feelings on their adjustments to being in medical school. Noor Ali shared that his participation in the ORW program assured him that he was going to make it through his learning journey and reach his goal of entering the medical profession.

“This helps me not lose sight of why I got involved in medicine in the first place, despite the demands and the stress,” Ali says.

Ali’s honesty spurred first-year medical student Nicolette Le to explain how setting priorities, like participating in House Call, helped her gain confidence in her abilities.

The group was then led through a poetry writing workshop. The ORW women were asked to share their thoughts on the question What is poetry?” and how reading and writing can help them reflect on their feelings and where theyre at in time.

The group was offered poetry writing prompts on grief, happiness and change and given an extended block of time to write and reflect. Then the floor was open for everyone to share what they wrote.

One ORW resident said the writing exercise allowed her to process how she was feeling and coping that day. 

Hope brings me to rooms like these,” she said. “This is about being where I am at in the moment.

Others shared their feelings concerning the upcoming holidays and about medical issues, like living with diabetes. Another ORW resident shared that participating in House Call helped her feel more understood. Their moving responses encouraged sharing to continue throughout the room.

House Call is a project of the Physicians for Human Rights Student Program at Ohio State. It began in 2020 when a group of medical students contacted the warden at ORW to create a video forum series about women’s health while incarcerated. The project evolved into periodic virtual gatherings with ORW residents, the warden, medical staff, faculty and community advisors. The experiential learning initiative began meeting monthly in person after the pandemic.

Kristy Nguyen says working with others helps her remain enthusiastic and dedicated to her medical learning and training. And taking time to share an evening with fellow students and women at ORW helps her build close relationships with others.

“Medical school isn’t meant to be done alone, Nguyen says

Neither is getting through incarceration,” adds Patricia Wynn Brown, writer and advisor to House Call. Shes led volunteer projects at ORW for many years, using the power of art and humor to connect with other women, build important relationships and deliver medically focused knowledge by teaching basic medical education in areas such as heart, bone and joint health and issues specific to women’s wellness.

Brown agrees that the program brings people together and pulls everyone out of their comfort zones and into a sense of belonging and caring. Programs like House Call provide ORW women and medical learners a safe place to heal and grow. It provides the opportunity to change lives and transform the health of our communities. Considering 95% of inmates come out of the incarceration system and return to society, these programs are extremely important. 

Back to the question posed at the December House Call: What is poetry? It seems its a lifeline to hope and new beginnings.