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Community is Medicine: Building Relationships as a means of Healthcare

In this post, graduate student Makayla Anderson illustrates the work of Dr. Wanda Thruston and the importance of serving the community. This post was written in partnership with Dr. Krista Longtin’s advance science and research communication writing course at IUPUI. –JAS

According to the CDC, there is about a 1 in 500,000 chance of getting struck by lightning. The CDC also reported that the risk of a fully-vaccinated person getting COVID-19 is around 9% – but I suppose my subconscious equated that to the first statistic. “There’s no way this storm will hit my home,” I thought. Alas, not long into the third wave of the pandemic, I received the phone call that my fully vaccinated parents were positive for the virus. We’ve been struck.  

But this story isn’t about me, it’s about our communities. Whether or not you have encountered the virus head-on, it is highly likely – I’d venture to say 100% – that some part of your daily life has been affected by the pandemic.  

The changes that we have had to face in the last year have brought mental and social wellness into the spotlight more than ever. The faculty at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) were quick to notice that their nursing students, particularly their students of color, were struggling with stress and anxiety associated with the pandemic, so they contacted Dr. Wanda Thruston, who worked at the Indiana University (IU) School of Nursing, in Indianapolis for help.  

Image of Dr. Wanda Thruston
Photo courtesy of Dr. Wanda Thruston

Dr. Thruston’s research focuses on the implementation of evidence-based practices, or problem-solving approaches that are based on scientific research evidence that the approaches are effective, and valued by both participants and experts. She uses these problem-solving practices to address the social and emotional health of school children and school personnel. After she was contacted by NCCU, Dr. Thruston searched the published research and found a peer-to-peer mentorship program to help the students work through their anxiety and stress together. She collaborated with the nursing students and faculty to develop the program and implement it in a way that would best address their needs as a community.

I wasn’t in the hospital for too many years before I realized that I really want to work out in the community and not in an acute care setting

Dr. Wanda Thruston

Prior to her collaboration with NCCU, Dr. Thruston worked in healthcare and health education for nearly 40 years, and very few of those were spent solely in a traditional healthcare setting. “I wasn’t in the hospital for too many years before I realized that I really want to work out in the community and not in an acute care setting,” she prefaced as she began to tell me about her work in the Indianapolis communities.  

Dr. Thruston began her career working as a nurse in community health centers run by Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis. As a nurse practitioner for the IU School of Nursing she managed clinics in churches and K-12 schools, where she provided care for children, adolescents, and women living in impoverished areas, homeless shelters or the streets. She also pioneered a school-based program for pregnant and parenting adolescents in Indianapolis. When she started this program in the 90s, she was running back and forth between the high school and the clinic, teaching classes for pregnant and parenting teens in between patient care. Nearly 25 years later, this program is still going strong, having served thousands of adolescents who became parents in about six high schools in the Indianapolis community.  

It was her experiences in the clinics of underrepresented and underserved communities that lead to Dr. Thruston’s research on the implementation of evidence-based practices, such as mentorship programs, experiential learning, and social emotional-learning curriculums to address and promote healthcare and health education equity in these communities. “What we mean when we say educational equity, is that all students are able to attend school and have the resources that they need to be successful academically, socially, and emotionally; that’s regardless of race, ethnicity, social economical level, or family circumstances,” Dr. Thruston explains in a promotional video for Education Equity in the Washington Township School District, where she served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 2008 – 2020.  

Following her service in the Washington Township School District, in June of 2021 Dr. Thruston was named the interim director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP) at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. In the announcement of this position, she says, “Being the new leader of CRISP allows me to combine my prior and current experiences with leadership, education, and equity to ignite courageous conversations that may spark changes in policy and practices that can improve the life trajectory for the populations in Indianapolis I have cared for the most.” 

“That’s what I give them: show up and be present.”

Dr. Wanda Thruston

And the care that Dr. Thruston has provided extends well beyond clinical healthcare. When I asked her what she found most rewarding about her work, she responded, “building relationships with people in the community, where I can build a sense of trust. . . it takes work; building that trust is the first and most important thing.”  She told me that long before she collects data for her own projects, she strives to build meaningful relationships with the communities and does her best to address their needs, whether or not it directly connects to her personal research.  

From putting on health fairs to providing health education, Dr. Thruston’s priority is creating working and trusting relationships first, so that she can engage with the communities in research that will further identify and address their needs. Even when the tangible outcomes of the research are hard for the public to see, Dr. Thruston shows up to listen: “That’s what I give them: show up and be present.”  

During a period when we have so frequently been isolated, being present for each other is critical. In addition to her work with the nursing students at NCCU, Dr. Thruston has also partnered with Barbara Pierce, an associate professor in the IU School of Social Work, on a project seeking to help teachers deal with the trauma associated with the pandemic here in our Indianapolis communities as schools began to reopen their doors for face-to-face learning. She now serves as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) helping nursing schools across the nation increase the diversity of the nursing workforce and developing supports for students and faculty. In a time where the world around us is deeply and disproportionately affecting our physical, social, and emotional health, Dr. Thruston’s work and sincere care for others is sorely needed – reminding us that the only way to truly get through this is together. 

Edited by Jennifer Shutter, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Headshot of Makayla Anderson
    Makayla S. Anderson

    Makayla Anderson is a PhD Candidate in Medical and Molecular Genetics at IUSM. She received her Bachelor’s in Biochemistry, with a minor in Education Studies at DePauw University. Her long-term career interests are in academia and science communication, research, and education.

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