Putting learning into action: Medical students work to ensure heart transplant patients have access to equal health care

Third-year medical student Lovette Azap’s parents immigrated to the United States from Cameroon, a country in central Africa. Throughout her childhood, she witnessed her family members encounter numerous barriers in accessing health care, which resulted in delays to diagnosis and treatment as well as adverse health outcomes.

Those stories about her family history and culture shaped her desire to become a physician-advocate for patients within underserved and minority communities with similar experiences.

“I became exposed to the health disparities faced by patients due to low socioeconomic or uninsured status, low health literacy and suboptimal access to quality health care during clinical rotations,” Azap says. “Throughout these experiences, I discovered the impact of social determinants of health on patient outcomes and the utility of engaging within health equity initiatives to mitigate disparities faced by underserved and minority communities.”

As she realized that these patient stories have a similar parallel to the ones faced by her family, she became determined to become a physician who adamantly advocates for health equity for all.

This spurred her into action — and she committed toward specializing in surgery and conducting research to raise awareness for disparities that adversely impact patients’ access to life-saving resources.

It also led her to the nonprofit The Equity in Heart Transplant Project (TEHTP), which offers financial, mental and emotional support to individuals who medically qualify for a heart transplant but can’t afford one. Founded by Nasrien Ibrahim, MD, an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist and researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, TEHTP works to eliminate financial barriers and make life-saving heart transplants accessible to those in need.

“This project is a strong foundation of why I want to be a surgeon, raise awareness of health disparities, and continue my work in mitigating barriers to health care equity within this organization and beyond,” says Azap, who serves as a TEHTP student ambassador. “We’ve raised funds to help 30 patients get heart transplants, and I look forward to our future in supporting many more patients that need this.”

A recent fundraiser she organized with learners at The Ohio State University College of Medicine during the student council’s “Month of Impact” in February raised almost $1,000 for TEHTP. The efforts also raised awareness on the impacts of heart failure in the central Ohio community, as well as empowered medical students to engage within initiatives that may support other patient populations in need.

Brielle Davidson, also a third-year medical student and chair of outreach and events for the College of Medicine Student Council, worked alongside Azap to organize and complete the fundraiser.

“This was the first year we decided to partner with a national nonprofit to raise awareness and have a tangible impact for something as great as heart transplants for those with inequitable access,” Davidson says. “I think people donated because it’s a good and noble cause, and because they saw how passionate Lovette and I were about raising money toward this initiative.”

The fundraiser included a monthlong raffle, a cooking class with a learning specialist at the college, merchandise giveaways from Student Council and keychains members sold to learners, staff, physicians and leadership. Azap has engaged in many fundraisers on behalf of TEHTP, which in addition to offering financial support to patients, allow volunteers to create care packages, pill boxes for medications, self care and comfort items to ensure patients’ can attain the best physical and mental health outcomes possible.

“Coming together as future leaders within medicine to ensure patients receive the care they deserve takes what we have learned within the classroom and puts it into positive action within our community,” Azap says.

This work contributes to building a health care environment where everyone, regardless of where they live, their background or how much income they bring in, to access life-saving medical care and treatments.

“I often remind myself and friends that you don’t have to save the world today,” Davidson says. “But one day, Lovette will be the one to do it.”

Photo caption: TEHTP founder, Nasrien Ibrahim, MD presented to student council on the nonprofit and Azap's work