Schweitzer Fellows announced

Ijeoma Okons

Ijeoma Okons

Two students from the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine have been named 2023–2024 N.C. Schweitzer Fellows and will spend the next year working on projects that address social factors that impact health and health care. They are part of a class of 29 North Carolina graduate students, eight from ECU, representing medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, public health and law.

Third-year dental students Ijeoma “I.J.” Okons and Kala Gause will represent the SoDM as Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows. Their project is educating pregnant women on the importance of oral health care. Their academic mentor is Dr. Taneet Ghuman, and their site mentor is Dr. Linda May. They will complete their project on-site at the dental school and through the Pitt County Health Department.

Schweitzer Fellows develop and implement service projects that address the root causes of health disparities in under-resourced communities, while also fulfilling their academic responsibilities. Each project is implemented in collaboration with a community-based organization. Schweitzer Fellowships include an intensive leadership component, with fellows working closely with community and academic mentors during their fellowship year.

“Schweitzer Fellows are not given a project or told to address a specific health need,” said Barbara Heffner, executive director of the N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. “They follow their passion and the needs of the community to develop innovative approaches which fill gaps in our health care system.”

Okons and Gause are educating underserved pregnant women on the importance of oral health and dental care through a partnership with Pitt County Health Department’s prenatal program. They will teaching oral hygiene workshops and creating a referral program from Pitt County Health Department to the ECU School of Dental Medicine to help patients establish a dental home.

Okons, from Fayetteville, said the project stemmed from a need to focus on the challenges pregnancy can introduce during an already vulnerable time for a woman.

“We are coming from all sides to address this by directly accessing pregnant woman within on-going prenatal courses as well as educating OB-GYN providers on the importance of oral health during such a vulnerable time,” Okons said. “We hope to not only educate woman but also steer these brave women toward the caring hands of dental providers. It is during this time we can impact generational change and better the oral health not only for the mother but their child as well, which could effectively spread through the entire household and beyond.”

Kala Gause

Kala Gause

Gause, from Durham, added that the project is geared toward addressing one of the most important areas of health for pregnant women.

“It is crucial that future dental professionals like me step up and use our dental knowledge to alleviate some part of their troubles and offer them the care and treatment they deserve,” Gause said. “Let’s empower them, ensuring they receive the proper dental care and treatment they need, allowing them to shine with renewed confidence and reclaim their sense of self amidst the journey of motherhood.”

The NCASF is funded through the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Delta Dental of North Carolina, Duke University School of Medicine, ECU Brody School of Medicine, North Carolina Area Health Education Centers, North Carolina Central University School of Graduate Studies, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative, UNC Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice, ECU Health, Wake Forest University Health Sciences and individual donors.

NCASF began in 1994 as a local chapter of the national nonprofit, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and has trained more than 600 leaders in health care. Nationally, more than 4,000 U.S Schweitzer Fellows have served individuals and communities in need and are continuing to shape health care policy and provide direct service.