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Organization led by pharmacy students fills health gap for the underserved

by Chuck Gordon

It didn’t take long for Jackie Whitley to realize that the men at Ground 40 needed more than spiritual guidance before they could fully re-enter society.

The Christian-based mission in Monroe provides men recovering from addiction or recently released from jail or prison with a safe transition to a different life. Brought in to talk to a fellow Marine Corps veteran in late 2020, Whitley learned that the man had no health insurance and was suffering from PTSD. It had been a while since he’d seen a doctor, and he mentioned other Ground 40 residents who needed assistance or who had left the mission because of health problems.

“I talked to the guy for about four and a half hours,” Whitley says. “I realized right then and there that these guys needed medical assistance.”

Whitley consulted with pharmacy professor Dr. Donald Nuzum, and before long members of the School of Pharmacy were spending one morning a month checking Ground 40 residents’ vitals and doing consultations with them.

Whitley eventually founded a registered student organization, Christian Medical Outreach, to widen the scope of the project. He’s brought in students from the Department of Physical Therapy to help out, and he’s also eyeing contributions from Wingate’s other health-sciences departments: physician assistant studies, nursing and occupational therapy. They are also helping residents at House of Pearls, a similar mission for women.

Man having his blood pressure checked

Whitley – who is taking a semester off from pharmacy school and has thus handed the reins over to fellow student William Mossman – envisions a conveyor-belt setup, where, once a month, residents have their vitals checked by a nursing student, go to a PA student for a general checkup, go over their meds with a pharmacy student, then move on to physical therapy or occupational therapy if need be.

“When I was first thinking about this, I was thinking about it almost like a mock office visit,” Whitley says. “We have five healthcare departments. Let’s get everybody together once a month and have a mini health fair. We need to be doing it consistently, until these people can get the help they need.”

As it is now, CMO volunteers check residents’ blood sugar, blood pressure and oxygen, go over their medical history and create a list of medicines they take. They finish the session off with a consultation to determine whether the resident needs any further medical assistance.

No matter the level of care, CMO’s mission sits squarely at the intersection of the three branches of the University’s motto: Faith, Knowledge, Service. It’s also another link in the chain that binds Wingate University to the surrounding community. Many of the residents at Ground 40 and House of Pearls are ultimately recommended to Community Health Services of Union County, a clinic for the uninsured for which Wingate provides a full-time physician assistant.

CMO’s efforts have so far borne plenty of fruit. On one visit, the group identified two residents of Ground 40 with blood-sugar levels over 600. “That’s in the range of going into a diabetic coma,” Whitley says. Both men were soon taken to a medical center for treatment. Whitley says that 16 residents of Ground 40 have been referred for further medical care so far.

Desire to make an impact

That’s the kind of difference-making Whitley, 37, had in mind when he decided on pharmacy as a career. He was manning the checkout counter of a Walgreen’s when the store’s pharmacy manager drafted him in to help out in the pharmacy. The pharmacist eventually took Whitley under his wing, and Whitley soon decided he wanted to go to pharmacy school.

“I saw what a pharmacist could do, how a pharmacist could impact someone’s life,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’”

A native of Mount Pleasant, N.C., Whitley took a circuitous route to Wingate’s School of Pharmacy. He took classes at three community colleges and UNC Charlotte to get his prerequisites out of the way, sandwiched around an eight-year stint in the Marines.

“I wanted to join the Marine Corps before I went into pharmacy, because I didn’t want to have any regrets when I was 70 years old looking back,” he says.

At Wingate, Whitley called on Mossman, a P1 (first-year) pharmacy student, to help organize the monthly clinics, and Mossman is now president of Christian Medical Outreach. Mossman, 21, also entered pharmacy school after a stint at community college, in Richmond County. He’d never volunteered much or done any extracurricular activities in school, but he’s glad that he’s helped out.

“It was honestly a little scary at first,” Mossman says. “It was like jumping into a pool of cold water, but I started swimming and haven’t looked back.”

Mossman and Whitley believe that interacting with disadvantaged people and those going through difficult times will help them strengthen their empathy muscles and serve them well when they become full-time pharmacists.

Whitley already has a good handle on the struggles the men are going through, having experienced a similar transition after his military stint ended. After eight years as a Marine, he experienced something of a culture shock when he returned to civilian life. “I was not in the best place in the world, to be completely honest with you, after getting out of the military,” he says.

Whitley lives in Monroe, not far from Ground 40. Before he ever visited the place, he used to walk his dog in the evenings and smell smoke. On his first visit to the mission, he realized it was from the nightly bonfire on the campus.

“I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to make a difference,” Whitley says. “I wanted to be a pharmacist to make a difference. And here I am sitting in my house, a mile and a half away from where I could be making a difference, and I’m not doing it. So I wanted to step up and do that.”

April 14, 2022