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Imagine you are a physician about to walk into a patient’s room for the first time when a nurse gives a snapshot of their case. You learn that your patient feels guilt and ambivalence about her inability to stop drinking during pregnancy. She states that she almost did not come to her appointment because she did not want to risk having her baby taken away after delivery. Now, take a minute to digest the judgments you have formed about your patient. What preconceptions do you have about your patient? How do you feel about her ability to be a good parent? Have you drawn conclusions about her social and environmental background? This exercise is a common practice within the NC Maternal Mental Health MATTERS curriculum, which works to provide physicians and other care providers with the tools they need to best support their prenatal patients.

As the acronym suggests, NC MATTERS stands for Making Access to Treatment, Evaluation, Resources, and Screening Better. Their most recent project, which I have had the privilege of working on, is creating a course that educates care providers on the treatment of perinatal substance use disorders. This course is one of many within the curriculum, and the topics range from medication management to perinatal anxiety. NC MATTERS works in collaboration with the UNC School of Medicine, Duke’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. While building a perinatal health curriculum is a main focus of NC MATTERS, the organization also works to provide real-time consultations via its hotline, webinars, toolkits, and other interventions to educate and train physicians and other care providers to improve perinatal health outcomes. Simply said, NC MATTERS works to empower physicians to provide the best care for their perinatal patients, while integrating a scaffolding of resources that are easily accessible for future use.

As a Karen M. Gil Intern, I had the opportunity to work with one of a myriad of organizations that partner with the program. NC MATTERS, in particular, spoke to me, as it embodied two areas of interest of mine seamlessly: maternal health and substance use disorders. As a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have had the opportunity to study the intersection between the two areas as a student, researcher, and care provider. I am currently majoring in Neuroscience (B.S.), with a minor in Chemistry. However, my story started far before I came to UNC. I am originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, and as a result of growing up in a large city, I was able to see the tangible effects of the opioid epidemic from a young age in my community. As I grew older, I began to see my friends fall into similar cycles of substance abuse. This phenomenon led my friends and I to create a pool of resources for students struggling with substance use in our community to utilize. This organization, known as Dysphoria, is a “treasure chest,” which includes subsidized access to psychiatrists, housing, and rehabilitation services. As I graduated high school, it was important for me to leave behind an impact on my community and my peers. I carried this sentiment with me as I began my course of study at UNC.

As a student at UNC, I have had the opportunity to expose myself to other fields of medicine, primarily fetal and maternal medicine. From combatting the maternal mortality crisis by developing urine-based preeclampsia test kits to working with an AI-based startup to author maternal-health-related content, I became increasingly involved with maternal medicine. Something was missing however, I enjoyed working with the substance use disorder community as much as I did with the maternal community. I struggled to find the bridge between the two, an intersection where I felt that I would be able to contribute the best. It wasn’t until a late-night shift as an EMT that I had the opportunity to care for a maternal patient with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). As I watched physicians and other care providers relay information to my team about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the accompanying course of action, I realized an intersection between my two areas of interest did indeed exist.

Since having this realization, I have had the opportunity to work on numerous projects within this intersection, primarily as an intern for NC MATTERS. While developing courses for physicians on perinatal health topics has been my primary effort, I have also had the opportunity to develop resource guides for both providers and patients. Furthermore, my days are now filled with meetings with various maternal and fetal health departments and organizations nationwide, where I have the opportunity to collaborate with other care providers to improve health outcomes for this population. In the next few weeks, I will have the opportunity to observe clinical sessions between NC MATTERS providers and patients to aid in the development of future courses. As I look back at the work NC MATTERS, my team, and I have done to champion better perinatal health outcomes, I could not be more proud of the efforts and dedication of the organization and its many ventures.

Lastly, I would like to thank my mentor at NC MATTERS, Karen Burns, for the role she has played in my development as an advocate for improved maternal health outcomes. I would also like to thank Dr. Steven Buzinski and Emily Dolegowski for their care and compassion for me as a student and as a human. Without these individuals, my experience as a Karen M. Gil intern and as a soon-to-be graduate of UNC would be immensely different. Thank you for being an inspiration to me and the next generation of change-makers.

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