Kelli Gills knew she wanted to be a doctor from the time she was a little girl. She remembers demanding that her mother let her “check her heart” and ultimately convincing her mom to buy her the game Operation. It wasn’t just the thrill of beating the buzzer set off by any wrong move that attracted her to the game — it was the sense of helping.
This past summer Gills, 24, had a chance to help real people by working in a community health center in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood on the south side of the city. A second-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Gills, who is African American, is one of 20 minority “GE Fellows” helping to improve health care and fight the opioid epidemic on a very local scale in Boston, GE’s new home. The program is part of the company’s $50 million commitment to the city.
GE moved its corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Boston one year ago. Over the past 12 months, GE Foundation — the company’s philanthropic arm — has launched several programs that give back to the community.
For example, the GE Foundation has made a $25 million commitment to improving STEM education — focusing on science, technology, engineering and math — in Boston Public Schools. GE’s Brilliant Career Lab initiative brought a mobile lab featuring 3D printers, a laser cutter and other advanced manufacturing tools to local schools so students can take these technologies of tomorrow for a spin. The company also is partnering with Boston-area Massachusetts Institute of Technology on its Energy Initiative to come up with new clean energy solutions such as solar energy storage, and with Northeastern University to co-develop an advanced manufacturing degree to equip more Americans with the skills required in the 21st century.
But the program that has occupied Gills this the summer arose from a listening tour that GE executives undertook soon after setting up shop in Boston. When they asked what the city needed the most help with, substance use and the opioid crisis were at the top of everyone’s list. So, the GE Foundation allocated $15 million to community health programs.
Part of that money is going to help fund GE’s Primary Care Leadership Program, which encourages minority and female medical, nursing and physician assistant students from diverse backgrounds to become primary care providers. The students who were sent to Boston, including Gills, focused not only on primary care but also on supporting care delivery for addiction treatment. That meant educating patients and their families about the dangers of opioids and encouraging people with substance use disorder to sign up for treatment.
In September, GE also sponsored a three-day opioid hackathon that drew more than 250 clinicians, community members, public health experts, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. Several ideas from the hackathon have been greenlighted for additional funding from the GE Foundation.
One idea was General Emergency Medical Supplies, or GEMS — locked boxes placed throughout metropolitan areas that contain life-saving supplies such as naloxone, which works to counteract opioid overdoses, EpiPens for anaphylactic shock emergencies such as bee stings, and hemorrhage control products for wounds. Emergency dispatchers can unlock the supplies remotely and guide callers in their use, turning bystanders into first responders. Over the last few months, the team has built and tested a prototype with support from the Cambridge Police and Fire Department.
Another idea that came out of the session is WeAreAllies, a start-up non-profit arming “allies” (friends, neighbors, teachers etc.) with rescue kits that carry naloxone and teaching them how to use it. The group also hopes that enlisting allies will help reduce the stigma associated with addiction, increase the conversations about the disease and get more people into treatment.
These programs won’t solve the opioid problem overnight, but with people like Gills on the front line, there’s a good chance of making a real difference. Even though she had to speak to most of her patients through a translator (the area where her health center was located is mostly Vietnamese) Gills said she felt like she had an impact.
“In the end, people are just people and they needed my help,” she says. “It was a good summer.”