Listen to This Story:
THE FOLLOWING IS A PNWU MISSION FULFILLMENT STORY
My name is Paul, and I prefer he/him/his pronouns.
If your rereading that sentence, scratching your head and wondering why it deserved to lead this story, welcome. You are not alone.
I’ve always been a “he.” When others have talked about me, for as long as I can recall, I have been either Paul or “him;” to others, the things I've owned have always been “his.” Those pronouns were an undeniable part of my character, sure, but I never really considered their importance. This is not because they do not matter, of course. In fact, if you were to ask, at this very moment, “what is she getting at here?” I would, at the very least, raise a confounded eyebrow. More likely, I would jump in and correct you.
But what would I say? “Excuse me, I’m a ‘he’”?
And if you refused to accept that? If you insisted that I was the “she” you’d labeled me as, no matter how many times I tried to correct you?
Honestly, I don’t know what I‘d do. The truth is, I’ve never been faced with that kind of offensive opposition. For that, I’ve learned that I am lucky. For many others — including the approximately 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender — those one-syllable identifiers can mean the difference between health and suffering, and those distressing and embarrassing encounters can be an everyday occurrence.
"For many others — including the approximately 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender — those one-syllable identifiers can mean the difference between health and suffering, and those distressing and embarrassing encounters can be an everyday occurrence."
For Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences’ LGBTQ Alliance for Health, how healthcare providers use pronouns is just one topic targeted for discussions aimed at eventual improvement. As the relatively-new student alliance — which aims to identify and provide education about the acute and longterm factors that contribute to LGBTQ health — continues identifying and addressing issues which have the ability to drastically shape the often-abhorrent health outcomes of some 11 million American adults who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, the list of topics that must be addressed quickly becomes colossal.
Thankfully, as representatives of the next generation of healthcare providers, students like Polly Wiltz, the incoming-LGBTQ Alliance for Health President, are up for the challenge.
As a high school student in Kennewick, Washington, Wiltz quickly connected with her Honors Chemistry lab partner. He was vivacious and inspiringly intelligent, and she quickly found herself excited to attend the challenging course where, together, they would buzz through the rigors of the curriculum. Then, seemingly overnight, everything changed.
Her energetic co-chemist became despondent and timid. He spoke more quietly. He passed between classes with his head down, and barely focused on the science projects they’d once bonded over. She soon came to learn that her friend’s bright light, which had brought her so much joy, had been senselessly dimmed by hate mail he had been receiving from their peers. Wiltz was dumbfounded.
“Who would do such a thing?” she wondered. Soon, she learned that the chilling answer to that question. The hate mail was coming from one of her closest friends, who staunchly opposed what she referred to as his “lifestyle choice.”
“That was a big eye-opener for me,” said Wiltz, reflecting on the experience that propelled her to learn more about the LGBTQ community. Driven to serve as an ally to those fighting for equality, Wiltz joined the Peace Corps, where she helped to organize national sensitivity trainings on HIV prevention for healthcare providers in Nicaragua.
As she enters into her second year of medical school, Wiltz is well aware of the importance of being an advocate for vulnerable populations. She’ll capitalize on that knowledge as she transitions into her role as the LGBTQ Alliance for Health’s newest president.
“It’s still a really young club — only 3 years old,” she explained, “but I see that as an opportunity to take what has already been done and to elevate it.”
Wiltz, speaking on the importance of advocacy, described a scenario in which a patient comes into a doctor’s clinic and is met by someone who hasn’t spoken to somebody from their community, doesn’t know how, or has a bias — even if it’s unintentional. “The likelihood that that patient is going to come back or seek out help, or tell other members of their community to seek out help, is a continuing barrier that we’re still seeing now,” she explained. In her short time with the alliance, Wiltz has witnessed the impact that the student group is capable of having not only on their campus, but throughout the community and beyond.
Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital, a general hospital in Yakima, Washington, with 222 licensed beds, including a 34-bed emergency department and an 11-bed critical care unit, recently reached out to the club for help with development of pronoun-focused cue cards for their staff. The cards, Wiltz explained, allow patients to identify their preferred pronouns so that, when providers see them face to face, they know: “Okay, this is a male transitioning to female who prefers ‘she, hers, theirs.’”
“It helps to remove the fear that we, as physicians, are not here to advocate for all of our patients,” said Wiltz. For patients from a community that suffers from an abnormally high risk of a variety of health concerns, including depression, anxiety, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, isolation, suicide, substance abuse, unhealthy weight control, smoking, violence victimization and more, even seemingly-simple questions, when asked appropriately, can literally change — and save — lives.
For patients from a community that suffers from an abnormally high risk of a variety of health concerns, including depression, anxiety, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, isolation, suicide, substance abuse, unhealthy weight control, smoking, violence victimization and more, even seemingly-simple questions, when asked appropriately, can literally change — and save — lives.
While many of the club’s advances can be credited to an ever-evolving generation of physicians, who bring with them a parallel shift in the way healthcare providers approach the infamously stigmatized LGBTQ community, a fair share of the credit must also fall at the feet of people like PNWU second-year osteopathic medical student Jennifer Bryan, who served as the president of the LGBTQ Alliance for Health this past year.
Bryan became involved in LGBTQ clubs as a high school student in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, after her search for answers on how she could help Eugene’s large homeless population revealed a shocking and insightful shortcut to curbing the crisis: LGBTQ youth represented up to 40% of all young people experiencing homelessness.
“One of the leading causes of youth homelessness, based on what I’ve seen, is that your parents kicked you out because you’re gay,” Bryan explained. “It’s a passion of mine to take care of homeless people and that, by extension, often ends up being LGBTQ folks.” While the efforts of the alliance have already made waves in Yakima, there is still much that needs to be done in places like Eugene.
According to an article recently published in The Register-Guard, a newspaper in Eugene, there has been a nearly 32 percent increase in the number of Lane County’s homeless in the past year alone. According to the Register-Guard, volunteers who fanned across the county in late-January found 2,165 people living on the streets, in short-term housing and in emergency shelter. That number marks the highest tally ever recorded in the community. Similarly, three nearby Central Oregon counties reported a 12 percent increase in homeless adults and children over the past year.
“Our goal is essentially to educate up-and-coming health care providers, including PNWU osteopathic medical students and Washington State University pharmacology and nursing students, as well as any interested community members, about healthcare issues in the LGBTQ community,” Bryan said. “We’re going to see these patients — whether or not we agree with what some people refer to as their ‘lifestyle choices’ — and we need to know how to treat them. There’s power in asking the right questions.”
As Bryan prepares to embark on her third-year rotations, and Wiltz prepares to lead PNWU’s LGBTQ Alliance for Health, there are many obstacles that still need to be addressed. Thanks to the passion of leaders like Wiltz, Bryan, and all who came before them, it seems almost certain that the next generation of healthcare providers will be more equipped than ever to provide quality healthcare to members of the LGBTQ community.
“Students care,” Wiltz said. “We want to learn, we want to be involved, but oftentimes we don’t know how. We now have an opportunity to make this a presence on campus. Here at PNWU, if you see something that you want changed or improved upon — if you want to bring something in — the school is really receptive. Everything the LGBTQ Alliance has done has been with the support of faculty and staff. I receive multiple emails from people sharing ideas, from students up to the Dean and President. I don’t think that’s an opportunity that is present at many medical schools. There’s such an interest in developing a space to continue developing on these foundations. There’s a huge potential to start with this generation of physicians.”