RAM response to health crises

Contact: Brad Lifford

August 12, 2010

JOHNSON CITY – Without her university experience and a supportive faculty voice at East Tennessee State University, Dr. Melissa Greenwald would probably be in a very different place today.

Greenwald is a physician and researcher with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. She is also a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service Corps, and, this weekend, will be among the 100 uniformed Corps officers helping provide free medical care Aug. 14-15 at the Remote Area Medical clinic at Unicoi County High School.

In addition to the care they will provide during the RAM clinic, Greenwald and approximately 10 additional officers – as well as ETSU faculty who formerly served with the Public Health Service or National Health Service Corps – will gather Friday afternoon with university students to demonstrate how they do a tabletop exercise in response to a health care problem. Health care agencies frequently use tabletop exercises to analyze the response to public health crises.

Greenwald played a leading role in arranging for the deployment of Public Health Service officers to Unicoi, and her visit to Northeast Tennessee will no doubt bring back memories. Chief among them will be the role Dr. Creg Bishop played as she was earning a bachelor’s degree in public health with a concentration in environmental health at ETSU. Now professor emeritus in the ETSU College of Public Health, Bishop formerly served as associate dean for the college.

“When I was earning my bachelor’s, I took several classes that Creg was teaching,” Greenwald said, “and he talked a lot about the Public Health Service. He had been in the service himself, and he never stopped talking about the things he did. His influence made a big difference in the direction of my career.”

Through a Public Health Service externship, Greenwald spent a summer working on an Indian reservation in Philadelphia, Miss. She left with the resolve to become a doctor and did become one, earning her medical degree at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

“I liked being able to serve underserved populations,” Greenwald said. “I felt like I had the chance to make a difference. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Bruce Behringer, ETSU’s associate vice president and executive director for the Office of Rural and Community Health and Community Partnerships, coordinated the Friday meeting, being held at Farmhouse Gallery in Unicoi at 3:30 p.m.

“Dr. Greenwald has arranged this unique opportunity for our ETSU students to participate in this interprofessional tabletop exercise. This is real hands-on learning in planning and deployment of resources to deal with health issues,” Behringer said. “We have also asked the Public Health Service officers to  talk about their careers. Because of our institutional mission and community-based curriculum, ETSU could be a prime recruiting ground for future PHS officers.”

Also attending will be ETSU faculty members who, like Dr. Bishop, have Public Health Service experiences in their professional backgrounds. They too will share their experiences with students.

Dr. Tom Townsend is one of those people. A professor in the ETSU Department of Family Medicine, Townsend graduated from medical school full of idealism. A native of rural Arkansas, he saw himself delivering medical care to the same rural population he grew up with, so he joined the National Health Service Corps in its infant stages back in 1974. His first day in the corps, he rubbed elbows with another young physician of like mind.

“Forrest Lang and I,” Townsend said, “started out on the same day.”

Dr. Forrest Lang and Townsend received Virginia assignments that put them in close proximity – Lang was sent to Haysi in Dickenson County, Townsend to Independence in Grayson County. They stayed in touch and eventually became colleagues at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine; both are longtime faculty members. Lang has been the director of the Department of Family Medicine’s Education Division for the past 25 years.

“I fell in love with the idealism of the National Health Service Corps,” Townsend said. “It gave me the opportunity and experiences that are still the driving, prime ideals of my life. I’ve been here at the College of Medicine for 20 years, and I’ve measured every day of teaching against the value of my experience in the National Health Service Corps.”

Greenwald looks forward to serving at RAM and meeting and working with students from her alma mater over the weekend, as several faculty, students and staff members from ETSU will also volunteer at RAM. In her office in Washington, D.C., she is chief of the FDA’s Division of Human Tissues and Reproduction Branch.

“My ideals are still the same ones I had when I was at ETSU,” Greenwald said. “While I’m not directly serving underserved populations, my job is to help at the highest policy levels, so I’m at a place where we’re able to have a big effect on the health and welfare of the overall population, instead of on an individual basis. It’s very rewarding.”