The nonprofit Remote Area Medical organization, founded in 1985, was created to provide health care services to underserved and economically disadvantaged communities. As RAM has grown through the years, student chapters have formed.
Now in its second year as a student organization at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the RAM chapter brings UTC students to free pop-up clinics across the state to assist in providing vision, dental and general medical care to people in need.
After finding a love for volunteering at RAM clinics, senior Ella Williams, who majors in business while preparing to go to dental school, established a student RAM chapter at UTC.
“It’s hard to ask for care,” Williams said. “You see a lot of emotional people and, I mean, like anxious and crying.”
She said the student volunteers obviously can’t offer actual medical care, so “you’re more just dealing with patient flow. We’re comforting people or helping them know where to go.”
Growing up in Franklin, Tennessee, Williams was raised in a family where she never had to worry about whether she would get the care she needed. After going to her first RAM clinic, she was surprised to see how many people were really struggling to find health care.
“I had a lot of teeth issues and mouth issues growing up, and so I’m like, ‘Man, if I weren’t born into the family I was born into, would I still be in this position?’” Williams pondered.
She attended her first RAM clinic to get volunteer hours but left knowing she wanted to continue to help underserved people receive medical care.
“You look around and you see all these people with smiles on their faces actually helping people,” she said, “and that’s the kind of thing I want to do.”
Sitting behind a screen all day trying to read an optometrist’s messy handwriting, Williams struggled through her first clinic experience. At the end of the day, she still wanted to continue.
“Even though [my job] wasn’t hands-on, I’m helping a doctor not have to spend 10 minutes doing this on the computer, so they could be going and checking this patient’s eyes,” Williams said.
Over the last few years, Williams traveled to as many clinics as possible across the state. Although the senior year crunch keeps her from going as often, she said she still loves the experience and prepares for a time when she can help underserved communities daily.
“The people you’re serving are so thankful for your service,” Williams said. “Everyone, even the students, are so nice and there’s just a big community around with the common goal of providing health care to underserved communities.”
When Williams set out to establish a RAM chapter at UTC, she was unsure what she was getting herself into. Now, with dozens of members, she is happy to find so many students who want to help as much as she does.
After dreaming of becoming a dentist for so long, Williams often battles imposter syndrome, questioning how she got to where she is today. However, she finds comfort in feeling she’s following her destined path.
“I’m becoming the career that I chose at 10 years old,” Williams said. “I wrote my personal statement on it like in the Taylor Swift song ‘Invisible String’ and all.”
Comparing her career path to the Chinese legend of the Red Thread of Fate, which says an invisible red thread connects those destined to meet each other, Williams has found many instances in her life to always tie back to dentistry in some way.
“As I’ve gone through the years, I just feel like I’ve always had different dental things be pulled to me,” she said.
Now, Williams leans into the opportunities provided to her, taking every chance she gets to learn more about dentistry.
“I had to get my wisdom teeth out and the doctor, without even really knowing me, was like, ‘If you want to stay awake, you can.’ I’m like, ‘I would love to stay awake,”’ Williams recalled. “I got to stay awake for my wisdom teeth surgery, and he walked me through everything.”
After serving as RAM chapter president for a year, Williams passed along the title to junior Kaitlyn Acuna, who plans to enter emergency medicine.
Leading the chapter in its second year, Acuna strives to carry on Williams’ mission of gathering as many student volunteers as possible to be able to help more people.
“To go into any kind of health school…you need volunteer hours. They want to see that you care about giving back to your community,” Acuna said. “You can say you care for patients, but I feel like volunteering shows.”
Tightening the thread between UTC RAM and people in need, what started as a way to gain volunteer hours became a bridge connecting students to the communities surrounding them.
As the chapter grows, Acuna continues to work with Williams and advisor Theresa Blackman, assistant director of pre-health student services at UTC, to strengthen the student organization’s routine.
“What we’re looking for is the clinics that are within traveling distance for us,” Acuna said. “Then we as a chapter…coordinate carpooling there and kind of just let people know where the clinic is and stuff like that.”