Courtney’s Final Blog Post

As my time as a UA-Pickens County Fellow comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on my experiences in the county over the last year. In July, I will start medical school, which will fulfill a dream that I have had since I was 7 years old. Though I have always known that I want to be a doctor, I have never been able to definitively say what field of medicine I want to pursue. After this last year working with the county, I am definitely closer to figuring that out; however, I’ve also learned something even more important this year: there is nothing more fulfilling or important to me than serving the underserved. After working in Pickens County, I now believe that the future of healthcare is outside of the hospital and in the heart of the community. As such, I anticipate a future career serving alongside community leaders, aiming to improve healthcare delivery so that all residents have access to quality health care, regardless of their social or economic status.

In the last year, I have taught nutrition education to high school and elementary students across Pickens County. On my very first day, I remember Dean Streiffer saying something that I will keep in mind forever: the word “doctor” actually means “teacher.” Although that initial connection may be hard to make, I have learned that the best doctors are really just outstanding teachers that dedicate their lives to teaching health. One of the best doctors I’ve ever met was an orthopedic surgeon I met when I was in high school. What makes him stand out in my memory was his willingness to teach me on a level that I would be able to understand as a 15-year-old.  Whether it was drawing a diagram of the ligaments in my knee on the paper lining the exam table, or explaining biologically why my knee was swollen, I learned from him.

This last year has taught me that education drives change and that the importance of a quality health education cannot be overstated; in the future, I envision a career in academic medicine in which I will be able to combine my passion for research with caring for patients and teaching, which has been one of the most genuinely fulfilling experiences I have had in Pickens County.

As evidenced by the recent addition of sociology and psychology on the MCAT and the evolving requirements for admission into medical school, medicine is becoming a more holistic field. Physicians are learning to treat “health” in a much broader sense. Witnessing the social determinants of health firsthand this year in Pickens County will undoubtedly make me a better physician in the future. As someone who has a background in the natural sciences, it was initially challenging for me to understand how things that are not biological in nature can have such a profound impact on physiological processes within our bodies; after spending a year away from the microscope and interacting with the people of Pickens County, I can definitively say that is no longer the case and my understanding of this will guide my medical practice in the future.

I am thankful that I was in Pickens County to witness the development of this project, and I anxiously await a reunion in which I can meet the people from Gordo to Carrollton—and every mile of Highway 86 in between—that have been impacted by the work of this partnership.

Thank you, Pickens County, for the opportunity of a lifetime.

PCH: Cooking healthier a goal of UA partnership student

Pickens County Herald: Cooking healthier a goal of UA partnership student

March 8, 2017 – Courtney Rentas, a Fellow with The University of Alabama-Pickens County Partnership, is teaching a nutritional cooking class to freshmen at Aliceville High School this semester.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of high school students in Alabama are obese compared with 14 percent nationally. Rentas hopes that teaching high school students basic nutrition and elementary cooking skills will lower the rate of obesity in Pickens County in the future.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of high school students in Alabama are obese compared with 14 percent nationally. Rentas hopes that teaching high school students basic nutrition and elementary cooking skills will lower the rate of obesity in Pickens County in the future.

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Meeting the Fellows: Courtney

My name is Courtney and I am originally from a large suburb of Chicago called Naperville, Illinois. I graduated summa cum laude from The University of Alabama in May 2016 with a BS in biology and a BA in psychology. I will start medical school in the fall of 2017, though I haven’t yet decided where I will attend! During my undergraduate career at UA, I studied neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, under Dr. Kimberlee Caldwell. My research has been published, and I was named a Goldwater Scholar in 2015. Research is one of my truest passions, so I’m interested in a career in academic medicine. This career would allow me to serve my community as a physician, an educator and a medical researcher.

The project that I have been working on this year is nutrition education. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 35.7 percent of American adults are obese. In the state of Alabama, the percentage of obese adults is even higher than the national average, and the percentage of obese adults is still higher in Pickens County. In Pickens County, I am teaching basic nutrition education, like how to read and interpret a food label, to high schoolers and children aged 9-14. In addition to the nutrition education, my project has a cooking component in which I get to teach students how to prepare recipes that are easy, healthy and affordable.

We have made many different recipes over the last few months, but a favorite for the kids was the Caesar Pasta Salad. We prepared this recipe after I gave a lecture on carbohydrates. I try to make my lectures fun and engaging so that students retain and understand the relevance of the material. A few weeks ago, when we were talking about sugar, the high school students engaged in a debate on a soda tax that recently went into effect in California. I try to teach them things that will be useful when they’re at the store; one thing that many students were shocked to learn was that orange juice, which many people drink as a “healthy” alternative to soda, has nearly the same amount of sugar as soda does! They’ve learned that there is a direct correlation between sugar consumption and obesity, so hopefully they’ll rethink their drink choices when they’re in the cafeteria.

My time working with the UA-Pickens County Partnership has been the single-most transformative experience of my life. Working in Pickens County has been an unparalleled introduction to serving the medically underserved, which is something that I hope to do for the rest of my life. I have learned specifically that people lack the resources, not the willpower, to make healthy decisions and that is something that I will remember in my future career as a physician. I can now appreciate that the social determinants of health are just as important as the physiological determinants of health that we commonly associate with medicine, and that a person is so much more than their medical chart makes them out to be.

I am grateful for my time so far in Pickens County this year and I cannot wait for new students and more organizations to work with next semester!