issue Community Health 2024

Teachable Moments: Educating the Public on Vaccines and American History

By Margaret Smith

Bridging the gap between misconception and reality has become an increasingly necessary civic responsibility in recent years. But how does one remedy these chasms when dealing with topics that pose a threat to the general public — such as COVID-19?

In the case of Aaron Dyson, MD ’23, meeting people where they are and using educational campaigns to bolster public knowledge is his method of effecting change, all rooted in what he describes as a “desire for patient safety.”

Before Dr. Dyson’s current position as an anesthesia resident at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, he served as the president of 鶹Ӱ’s Student National Medical Association chapter. The core aim of the organization is to support underrepresented minority medical students, a mission that coincides with his own aspirations of providing mentorship.

“During the time when COVID hit and the Black Lives Matter movement started up, it was kind of a storm — I wouldn’t say a perfect storm — but it was an opportunity for us as an organization to speak up,” Dr. Dyson said.

For Dr. Dyson, however, extending practical resources to a larger community did not begin and end with his peers at 鶹Ӱ. In an earlier phase of the pandemic, he made an educational video for members of the 鶹Ӱ community in which he engaged with common misconceptions surrounding COVID vaccinations.

“Historically, there’s been mistrust in health care in many minority communities. Specifically, the history of vaccinations within minority communities in Chicago was not great,” he said. “So, primarily, my motivation was to encourage underrepresented minority individuals to understand more about the importance of vaccinations and to receive them.”

With limited data available, Dr. Dyson’s approach was cautious yet direct. “I didn’t want to mislead anyone. That’s how the mistrust builds — giving false information or information that’s not fully fleshed out was not my goal.”

Yet, thoughtful engagement is about more than just medicine for Dr. Dyson, as proven by his family’s commitment to the Buffalo Soldier Mounted Cavalry Unit (BSMCU). With origins on the Western Frontier, the BSMCU preserves and displays the historical significance of African Americans’ impact and proficiency within equestrian care and frontier living, and provides living history presentations and education for people of all races to learn of the great contributions made by these brave soldiers to the United States.

“I have two mentees, two Black men who are interested in anesthesia. And that’s something that I’m looking forward to, broadening my base of people that I mentor.”

“It was my uncle who had an epiphany that, ‘This is not just Black history, it’s American history, and it needs to continue to be told.’ My father got involved,” he said, “and their active engagement with different units led them to create their own unit in South Los Angeles. My brother and I saw this opportunity to get involved.”

Over the years, the unit has proudly showcased its skills, dressed in full regalia, at prominent public events including the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade.

“This experience has impacted my life and taught me about a life of service, which has always been my gift. It has been instrumental in my goal to serve the community and bring equity and equality for all people in health care, including those who look like me. We are all members of the same society and want all to experience the same level of service.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Dyson hopes he can continue to focus his efforts on the next generation of medical professionals.

Dr. Dyson riding a horse Dr. Dyson in uniform
Dr. Dyson in uniform as a member of the Buffalo Soldier Mounted Cavalry Unit. The California-based nonprofit honors members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, which were segregated units formed following the Civil War that served on the Great Plains and in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. (bsmcu.com)

“I have two mentees, two Black men who are interested in anesthesia. And that’s something that I’m looking forward to, broadening my base of people that I mentor. … I want to get more minorities in anesthesia,” he concluded. “Then I can get more of an insight on how to grow and how to move forward with my advocacy and mentorship. That’s my dream.”

Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based freelance editor and writer whose work largely focuses on current sociopolitical happenings.

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