Release Date: June 15, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic, run by students at the University at Buffalo's medical school, is a key reason why Michael J. Blanco, a Florida native, chose to attend UB's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Now, the third-year medical student has won an American Medical Association Foundation 2012 Minority Scholars Award, in part, for his work at the Lighthouse Clinic.
Blanco is one of only 13 students nationwide to receive the $10,000 scholarship award, which recognizes academically outstanding medical students committed to promoting diversity in medicine and eliminating health care disparities. It is the second year in a row that a UB medical student has won the prestigious AMA award.
"The Lighthouse is part of the reason I came here," says Blanco, noting that he was impressed with the fact that UB's medical students were getting involved, providing free medical care to underserved populations in Buffalo.
The walk-in clinic serves Buffalo's East Side community under the supervision of family medicine physician Kirk Scirto, MD, and UB medical school faculty members who volunteer their time.
At the clinic, Blanco has served as infectious disease manager, testing and counseling patients for diseases ranging from TB to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In that role, he and his colleagues maintain what he calls "a unique relationship" with the Erie County Department of Health.
"We draw samples from the patients and provide them to the Health Department, which conducts the testing for free," says Blanco. "So we get the testing while the Health Department gets access to data from the populations that we serve. "
Blanco notes that because of budget cuts, many clinics that used to conduct STD testing in Buffalo have closed, making the services available at the Lighthouse that much more valuable.
"We're one of very few STD testing locations left in Buffalo," says Blanco, who researched and presented this year at the national Society of Student-Run Free Clinics Conference a poster on "The Model for Cooperation on STD Testing Between a Student-Run Free Clinic and a Public Health Laboratory."
"A lot of free medical clinics are experiencing funding problems, so we wanted to describe that relationship, which has been mutually beneficial," he says.
Blanco has also served as AMA Minority Issues Committee Liaison and organized a Doctors Back to School program at Buffalo's Health Sciences Charter School, which encourages minority youth to choose a career in health care.
"We try and motivate students because they see medical students and doctors that look like them so they know opportunities are out there, and that there's limitless potential," he says.
And while Blanco is making every effort to try and inspire others to follow their dreams, it wasn't that long ago that he wasn't sure how he might achieve his own.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Florida with a double major in integrative biology and business management, he got married and started a family.
"I got kind of sidetracked and I had to go to work," he notes, adding that he started working in his father's used car business.
"But the whole time I was doing that, I always had the desire to go back to school and pursue my dream of going to medical school and becoming a doctor," he says. "It came to the point where it was now or never. Out of the places where I was accepted, I thought Buffalo was the best fit. For the past two years now, I've been living the dream."
Blanco lives in Buffalo with his wife and two young daughters.