Advancing Community Health



The Medicine of Inclusion


Elizabeth Looney has seen the power of hope. She has observed it in her work as a volunteer in El Salvador, with HIV patients in Massachusetts and with inner-city school children in Cleveland. As she has listened to the stories of the people she has served, her impressions of the human spirit have altered … and so has her prescription for change. Looney now believes that treating the needs that are most apparent may not be the cure that the patient needs most.

In an essay about her time in El Salvador, she writes, “I came to see that the true needs of most people were not to learn English, or have a new school built – as maybe presumed by an outsider – but for inner healing, self-efficacy and a sense of personal empowerment.’’

Looney continues, “I found that the best tools I had at my disposal towards this end were my time and my presence. I spent many weekends and nights with the families I came to love, ate homemade tortillas around their tables, and got to know them as people with dreams and aspirations. We walked together and bathed in the rivers, danced, and celebrated birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and fiestas of the Saints. But most of all, I listened; listened to how people survived the war, and what the realities of their gangridden communities were, and how they continued to hope and love anyway.’’

Who dares to think of inner healing as a prescription for those who have the least? You might imagine that this compassionate, worldly voice is that of a venerable nonprofit executive – perhaps a Baby Boomer CEO who spent her career climbing the corporate ladder and now feels a need to give back. But Elizabeth Looney, barely 30 years old, is a fourth-year medicine student at Northeast Ohio Medical University, one of the first students in the inaugural class of the NEOMED-CSU Partnership for Urban Health. She had achieved so much at such an early age that Crain’s Cleveland Business put her on the list of Who to Watch in Medicine, 2014.

Growing up in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, Looney developed a passion for the well-being of people, community health and family medicine through the example of her parents.

“My mom (Melody) was a nurse and my dad ( Jim), who worked many years for the City of Cleveland, was a huge believer in education. And they both loved helping people. They were involved in the community, and that’s how my bother ( Jim Jr.) and I were raised,” Looney noted. “We often fed people, gave them rides and many people (who were) without a place to stay, slept over.’’

Looney’s fi rst taste of community medical service came during her junior year at the University of San Francisco (USF), when she studied abroad in El Salvador, then stayed on to volunteer for an organization that connected communities, churches and schools in the United States, Australia and Canada with community projects in the Latin American country. After graduation, she returned to El Salvador, where she worked as a delegation coordinator, mentoring students in a study abroad program. Upon returning to the States, Looney enrolled in the Community Social Psychology (CSP) Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It was during her second year, working with HIV patients as an intern at a community health center, that Looney realized she was destined for health care and family medicine.

After graduating from UMass, Looney moved back to Cleveland and began taking post-baccalaureate courses at CSU to prepare for medical school. Continuing her work with the underserved, she was working as a program manager with hundreds of kids in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District when the NEOMED-CSU Partnership for Urban Health was announced. Entering the program was a natural progression for Looney. In her first year of medical school at NEOMED, she received the Choose Ohio First Scholarship, an Education for Service award for students committed to primary care in Ohio.

Already, this young community activist has worked with the disenfranchised, the disparaged and the devastated. She has listened to their struggles and gained an appreciation for the potential that could be unleashed by empowering this underserved population. Now, after having lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, and in Central America, Looney is ready to settle in Northeast Ohio and help people here write their own prescription for change.

SO_looneyProviding care to the underserved requires an extraordinary level of servant leadership. Bona fide servant-leaders rarely have time to consider how much support they need to continue helping others, but advocates for community health are taking note and doing something about it: The Pisacano Leadership Foundation (the philanthropic arm of the American Board of Family Medicine) recently recognized six students nationally who have committed to the specialty of family medicine.

Elizabeth Looney is the first NEOMED student ever selected as a Pisacano Scholar. She joins distinguished honorees from Harvard University (two), Duke University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Colorado. The award will pay up to a total of $28,000 toward debt incurred by Looney during her fourth year and throughout the following required three-year residency.

Looney notes, “Receiving assistance to help pay back medical school debt has been a huge support. While most of us going into primary care are not bothered by the fact that we will be paid less for our services than our specialty colleagues, we still have the same amount of medical school debt. The gesture of financial support provided by the Pisacano scholarship is appreciated not so much for the bottom line – though this is of course helpful! – but even more as a gesture of respect and gratitude for choosing primary care.”