College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Biology Student Develops Health Program

With a little luck, a lot of determination, and some Spanish, Kaitlin Gilham, a senior biology major from Corinth, developed a program that promises to spark her interest in community health for the rest of her life.

Gilham  single-handedly organized “Como Cuidar su Corazón” (How to Take Care of Your Heart), a heart-health program for Hispanics in the Oxford community during summer 2009.

“I wanted to improve the lack of health information and the lack of access to health care for the Hispanic population,” Gilham said.

The seven-week program was part of Gilham’s thesis for the Honors College. Its purpose was to inform local Hispanics about healthy-lifestyle decisions and provide heart-health information. The program ran Friday evenings, June 6 through July 18, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

Gilham first knew she wanted to develop this program after attending “Search Your Heart,” an American Heart Association program at the University of Nebraska that gives heart-health information to black and Hispanic communities. Gilham knew that she wanted to do something similar in her own community.

Gilham asked for help from Penny Sisson, Spanish instructor and a deacon at St. Peter’s. The church has had a Hispanic ministry for the past 10 years so Sisson was particularly interested in this kind of offering for the Hispanic community.

But, lack of funding was a major issue.

“I wanted to do it bad enough that I would have paid out-of-pocket for it,” Gilham said. “I don’t have the money, but I would have taken up a job.”

Gilham decided to write letters to physicians asking them for donations of equipment and materials to the program. Five physicians responded.

Luckily, one of the responses came from Dr. James Guyton and his family, who donated a generous amount of money to Gilham’s program. Three other physicians donated the use of a blood pressure machine and scales and made monetary contributions. The Baptist Memorial Hospital of North Mississippi also made a monetary contribution.  Additionally, Gilham applied for and received an Honors College fellowship for her program.

Now that she had enough money, Gilham worked on putting together the program itself. Kathy Knight, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, volunteered to talk about nutrition at one of the sessions and make a healthy version of a traditional Hispanic meal.

“I did the program one night on healthy cooking and low-fat, low-salt cooking,” Knight said. “I gave general tips in my talk that I would give anybody, and then for the meal, I picked two traditional dishes: tamales and chicken enchiladas.”

Gilham also recruited various volunteers who came to the program to speak and offer different ways to stay healthy through exercise. The volunteers taught participants yoga, resistance training with water bottles and even salsa dancing.

Another example of the hard work Gilham put into this program is that she gave all her lectures in Spanish. Along with having a volunteer student translator, Gilham said this was the perfect opportunity to work on her Spanish.

Overall, 16 local Hispanics attended Gilham’s program. Eight of them attended regularly. “It’s hard to maintain attendance at any ongoing program,” Knight said. “For [Gilham] to be able to sustain the energy week after week is a testament to both her organizational skills and to the quality of the program.”

Sisson said she thought the program was excellent overall.

“A number of health care professionals from the community were involved and volunteered their time and expertise. I believe that the program will have very positive lasting effects on the people who participated.”

Gilham plans to earn a master’s degree in public health and a medical degree at The University of Mississippi Medical Center. She then wants to coordinate more community programs for other areas of Mississippi.

One of the most rewarding experiences for Gilham came at the end of the program.

“One of the participants came up to me and thanked me,” Gilham said.  “She said her refrigerator had healthier things in it; she is cooking healthier for her family, and she will try to keep doing this. It was touching. That made the whole program and all the work I had done worth it.”