Fighting Tuberculosis in NYC

Two Touro Graduate School of Social Work Students Intern with TB Patients through NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

April 22, 2020
GSSW students Beile Schmidt (left) and Carolina Torres interned in clinics serving TB patients through NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Before the coronavirus hit the United States, two students at Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) learned about the realities of another illness that preys on New Yorkers during their internships with New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) Bureau of Tuberculosis Control.

Students Carolina Torres and Beile Schmidt were based in two clinics that specialized in combatting tuberculosis across New York City; Torres in the Corona Chest Clinic, and Schmidt at the Fort Green Chest Center. The pair of students also showcase some of the non-traditional backgrounds of GSSW students. Torres is a Latina from the Bronx who had originally considered a career in medicine; Schmidt, who is originally from Argentina, is a member of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community and currently works as a care coordinator for the special needs organization HASC.

Torres said that the internship tied into her initial reasons for becoming a social worker.

“I decided to pursue social work instead of medicine since it covers a variety of fields and the profession contains a lot of values that I feel are important,” said Torres. “Social work encapsulates values and actions like social justice, community organizing and helping people holistically, all of which I did on this internship.”

As a social work intern, Torres worked with a team of doctors and nurses who helped individuals who had tested positive for the disease; had come in contact with people who tested positive from the disease; or came from areas were the disease is prevalent.

“I was able to work with an interdisciplinary team in the public health system,” she explained. “I saw how a variety of factors affect health care.” Torres’s responsibilities included helping clients deal with food insecurity and connecting them to job employment and healthcare resources. Torres said that she quickly discovered that her responsibilities extended far beyond simply managing the symptoms of the disease.

“TB is a serious illness and it can really affect someone’s quality of living and their ability to function in society,” she said. “I learned how important social work is to the public sector. Public health is not just curing symptoms; public health encompasses all our basic needs. It’s not just medical care, but it’s access to housing and employment—and even if those needs are taken care, our responsibilities include helping our clients find a sense of purpose and ensuring they have a support system.”

Clients at the Queens clinic were primarily recent immigrants from Central and South America. “I was able to see the lack-of-care that immigrants face,” continued Torres, who is bilingual and spoke Spanish with her clients. “As a Latina, I came from a similar background as the patients, and, in that sense, I was able to act as a bridge, and help ameliorate the real needs of the people I worked with. The immigrants I met faced a very confusing system; they couldn’t access many healthcare options that were available to them because of their language barriers.”

Torres said her most meaningful encounter occurred when she helped a recent immigrant from Nepal.

“He was 26 and new to the country,” said Torres. “Working with him was eye-opening. He came to the country without family and he had active TB. It was a bit heartbreaking to see how much the disease affected him and how much he wanted to get better. I went with him to the food pantry because he didn’t have food at home. It was touching to see how happy a box of food made him. That’s something we take for granted.”

In Brooklyn, GSSW student Beile Schmidt worked at the Fort Green Chest Center, also run by the DOHMH.

“It was a very interesting experience,” said Schmidt, who like Torres worked with a team of doctors and nurses. “They hadn’t had a social worker in the clinic for many years, so it was a relatively new experience for them.”

She and her supervisor were tasked with helping clients navigate their way around the healthcare system and helping them in their personal matters.

“People needed references to other doctors or needed to know where they could get benefits like food stamps and help with their immigration status,” said Schmidt. “Some people simply needed to unburden themselves about different problems and I listened to them. I can’t say I gave them therapy, but I was there to listen to them.”

Schmidt was also tasked with organizing a TB support group for the clinic, an especially important responsibility.

“People are misinformed about tuberculosis, how infectious it is, and what treatments are available,” she said. “People are scared, and they don’t know what to do. Support groups help them understand their situation and give them the resources they need.”

Schmidt said she was grateful for the chance to work with a population she might not have known of. “Many of the clients I met had problems I wasn’t familiar with. TB is something you read about in newspapers. Seeing it first-hand and relating to it—trying to figure out the right advice to give—that’s where the real learning comes in. It’s not something you learn in books.”

The field placement at the DOHMH was created as a result of the collaboration between GSSW’s Dr. Jennifer Zelnick, a public health social work researcher who studies the social determinants of TB and Drug Resistant TB/HIV coinfection in the United States and South Africa, and the NYC Department of Health. “TB is an age-old disease of poverty that also impacts marginalized sub-populations around the world,” said Dr. Zelnick. “Social work has a long history of work in this field. These days, in NYC, TB is primarily a concern for different immigrant communities. For these reasons, and because of the nature of their training, social workers are ideal professionals to be part of a team to care for people living with TB. And our diverse body of Touro students are an ideal group of students for this field experience. I am proud of the work of Beile and Carolina, and of the GSSW’s contribution to public health in NYC.”