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Leading and Healing

It was Mary Kaldas’ first trip to the Boston area and Zach Wegermann’s second. The city, they said, was “awesome,” but sightseeing wasn’t their first priority. As the newest co-directors of The George Washington University’s Healthcare, Education, and Active Living (HEALing) Clinic, Kaldas and Wegermann — both second year medical students at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) — traveled to Cambridge, Mass. to attend the Institute of Healthcare Improvement’s (IHI) Open School Student Quality Leadership Academy.

“We had a great time and learned a lot,” reported Wegermann just days after the leaders’ return to Washington, D.C. “I was hoping to improve skills in effective communication and conflict management, and I think I did. The academy did a really great job addressing a wide range of issues in a way that was approachable and applicable to our roles as HEALing clinic co-directors.”

Kaldas and Wegermann were selected to join a group of about 50 student leaders nationwide to attend the conference free of charge, thanks to support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Designed to build the leadership competencies of students from all health professions, the two-day forum taught attendees how to lead change, manage projects, handle conflict, and communicate more effectively.

Between group discussions, lectures, case studies, and panels, Kaldas and Wegermann boosted their confidence in their ability to lead the HEALing Clinic, an after-hours clinic operated entirely by student volunteers from SMHS and the GW School of Public Health and Health Services. The clinic, which is held at two D.C.-area sites, provides screenings, primary care services, and health education to residents in the underserved Shaw/Howard and Anacostia neighborhoods, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

As co-directors, Kaldas and Wegermann must manage and motivate a diverse group of volunteers to provide high quality, timely, and compassionate care to some of the District’s most vulnerable residents. “There is often a discrepancy between goodwill and actually accomplishing the goal,” said Kaldas. “At the conference, we learned some important ways to motivate groups to get projects done as effectively as possible.”

One of the most important lessons Kaldas and Wegermann learned was how best to collect and share data. This year, the leaders are hoping to develop more rigorous ways to obtain measurements on patient and student satisfaction at the clinic. “We learned that a measure of leadership is results,” said Kaldas. “It’s not enough to feel like we’re helping communities in need. We need evidence that our services are needed and that they are working.”

The duo, who will serve a year-long term as co-directors, also plan to continue moving forward HEALing’s community outreach initiatives that include a mentorship program for aspiring health professionals in underserved areas and an HIV and teen pregnancy prevention program for teens in Anacostia. What’s more, the leaders hope to expand their services at Bread for the City, the original HEALing clinic site. With overwhelming student interest and a heavy patient load, the clinic only wants for additional faculty volunteers, who serve as supervisors during clinic hours.

“As medical students, the HEALing Clinic offers a really rewarding change of pace,” said Kaldas. “It helps us to really connect with patients and to not lose sight of why we wanted to be doctors in the first place.”

Fresh from the conference, the Kaldas-Wegermann team is prepared to succeed. Perhaps best of all, they are in this together. “Zach is brilliant and a natural-born leader,” said Kaldas of the former college water polo captain from Seattle. And ditto for Kaldas, a California native whose trips to visit her family in Egypt motivate her to improve access to quality care.  “Mary is such an easy person to work with,” praised Wegermann. “I feel very lucky to have her as a co-director.”