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Public health alumna returns to the classroom

April 6, 2022

March 31, 2022
Story by Jacob Nicholson

For many individuals, the holidays mark a season for relaxing with family, taking time off work, eating wholesome food and opening gifts. For others, especially people in impoverished and underserved communities, the holidays can be a time of struggle — a time that heightens their awareness of being away from their families, not being able to afford gifts or struggling with a lack of basic resources, such as housing or food. For Sonita Simelus, MD, Public Health adjunct instructor and alumna, it was a time to give back to her community in the Dominican Republic and help those in need.  

Dr. Simelus, MPH ’16, teaches undergraduate global health and public health promotion and program planning courses, and she has a long history of helping those who need it. Having served underprivileged families as a physician before, she had a clear idea of the struggles Haitian migrants face when traveling to countries such as the Dominican Republic for work in pursuit of safer, more prosperous lives. With that in mind, she set about to make the holiday season a happier, healthier time for the Haitian immigrants living in the Dominican Republic.  

To accomplish this, Dr. Simelus partnered with a nonprofit charity and built a network of agency and community partners — including community churches, pharmacies and specialty health care providers — for funding, supplies and expertise. With her public health team in place, she went to work.  

Over the course of her trip in December 2021, Dr. Simelus and her nonprofit team served 300–400 people, providing Christmas gifts and necessities like clothing and school supplies. They also provided much-needed health care, including preventative medical screening, over-the-counter medications and treatment for high blood pressure, skin lesions and dental decay. Due to limited availability of the vaccine, Dr. Simelus’ team also provided COVID screening and tests. 

“Being able to help my patients learn about their conditions, increase their health literacy, access follow-up care and provide gifts to their children during the holidays is its own reward,” Dr. Simelus said.

She also values the opportunity to educate her students about the complex barriers underprivileged communities face when accessing healthcare. “I want my students to know that it isn’t just the barrier of poverty and not being able to afford treatment,” she said. Her patients faced many other challenges, such as lack of access to cars and reliable public transportation, leading to long travel times for treatment that impede on other responsibilities such as work and childcare.  

“I also want them to know that with the right network of community supports in place, evidence-based public health interventions don’t just work wonders in the lives of the patients we see,” Dr. Simelus said. “[These interventions also] positively impact the well-being of entire generations of families.”

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Sonita Simelus

Sonita Simelus

Assistant Teaching Professor