At the School of Medicine, our values guide everything we do. And, at the core of our value system is giving back to our surrounding communities. Be it a simple act of kindness or a year-long commitment, our faculty, staff, trainees, and students are determined to go beyond the call of medicine to help our neighbors where we can.
In April of 2021, during National Volunteer Month, we kicked off an indefinite series that shares stories of outreach and volunteerism, beginning with a student who helped seniors around Birmingham during the pandemic. Since, we have shared several student stories, including one about a running group in Birmingham that helps rebuild the lives of homeless men, the story of a staff member who embraced community during COVID-19, and several others.
Today, we are excited to tell a story about a medical student at the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus (HRMC) who saw a need that he could not turn away from.
Discovering an unmet need of a marginalized population
Last winter, Azim Merchant, MS4, was filled with compassion when he passed a man without a jacket on his way into a night shift.
“I forgot my jacket while walking from the parking lot to the hospital for the night shift,” he says. “It was freezing. Across the street, I noticed a homeless man outside a coffee shop who also did not have a jacket on.”
Azim says he thought to himself, “at least I have a warm apartment to warm me up.”
“This sentiment, combined with the fact that we were still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—and along with the holidays coming up—was the perfect opportunity for my peers and me to give back to the Huntsville community.”
Merchant, who is a first-generation Pakistani-American from Birmingham, Alabama, could not let the noticed hardship go by without taking action.
Just a few days later, he started working with his HRMC professors and friends to organize a Winter Coat Drive in Huntsville. With the help of Roger Smalligan, M.D., regional dean of the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus; Lanita Carter, Ph.D., director of Medical Education and Student Services at the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus; and David Bramm, M.D., assistant professor in the Family Medicine Program, Merchant was able to successfully engage UAB faculty and staff, as well as the Madison County Medical Society (MCMS) to join the Winter Coat Drive’s efforts.
Scaling up to go big
“Drs. Carter, Bramm, and Smalligan were all accommodating and supportive,” Merchant conveys. “Dr. Carter recommended I reach out to Dr. Bramm, who was already connected with many homeless service organizations. Bramm was the one who gave me the idea to scale up the project to include the MCMS.”
The initial project was meant to be a UAB-only endeavor, but with Bramm’s help, Merchant reached the entire MCMS.
Plus, Merchant says Smalligan acted as the liaison between the MCMS and himself and helped “get everyone on board.”
“My classmates Paul Morris and Austin Martindale also helped a lot by spreading the word and connecting with other MCMS members,” Merchant recounts.
The coat drive was fruitful and very successful. “The team ended up collecting a significant amount of clothes and coats, and delivered them to a homeless shelter that was very appreciative,” says Smalligan.
Organizers and volunteers collected over 450 pieces of winter clothing. All items were donated to Huntsville Community of Hope, an organization that serves the homeless population in the greater Huntsville area. Community of Hope is dedicated to reaching people impacted by homelessness who may not have access to shelters within the city.
Extending care beyond the hospital and into Huntsville
Merchant says he took away many learning moments from the drive, but one stands out in particular: “I learned that one idea can really go a long way and that a small project can become large by seeking help and advice from those around me.”
Merchant has a career interest in cardiology and electrophysiology, and says this experience taught him about the importance of practicing medicine beyond the hospital walls.
“This experience will serve as a reminder to me that there is always more I can do to help my patients outside of practicing medicine. Whether it be something small like helping a patient eat their food, grabbing an extra pillow for them, or even massaging a patient's swollen ankle, or something large like organizing a county-wide coat drive, I can always help my patients outside of the clinic.”
When asked about his experience as a medical student in the Huntsville area, Merchant says he is happy in the Huntsville community. “Living in Huntsville has allowed me to become a part of the amazing community of physicians in the Madison County area. Each and every one of the doctors I have worked with has always made sure that I learned something new every day. They will forever be great role models and mentors that will I will strive to become like as a future provider.”