The industry that is most synonymous with West Virginia is coal mining. In 2020, the state was the second-largest coal producer in the nation, accounting for 13 percent of the total U.S. coal production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the lumber and timber industry has proven to be just as stable as mining in West Virginia.
That’s why the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) Rural Health Initiative (RHI) program hosted an event related to construction – an industry in which lumber often plays a vital role – for medical students who are interested in learning more about rural medicine. The program hosts events throughout the year as an effort to offer students firsthand knowledge about industries that affect the health of West Virginians, including environmental exposures that could cause injury or disease in the state’s rural workforce.
“We hope these events will enhance the rural experience of our RHI student doctors and facilitate connections to West Virginia patients with many different backgrounds and jobs,” said Rebecca Thacker, RHI program coordinator. “In addition to being eye-opening to the various lifestyles and safety concerns of the rural workforce, these field experiences are often powerful reminders of the need to support a patient’s body, mind and spirit.”
The RHI program’s most recent industry event focused on barrels, buildings and barns. Nineteen students spent the start of an autumn day visiting the Great American Barrel Company in White Sulphur Springs, where they toured a facility responsible for creating whiskey barrels in the heart of Appalachia.
They then visited a new home construction site where they learned from owner Robert Vass about the materials used for construction, the process of building a house and different features of the house. The economic impact of the construction industry in West Virginia and common occupational injuries associated with construction workers were also discussed by employees.
Students finished the day visiting the “boneyard” of Mark Bowe, a local businessman who works in the timber framing industry, where Bowe’s company stores old barn lumber for future restoration projects. Students received a colorful discussion of Appalachian folklore and home remedies versus professional medical care.
Alfredo Wong, a RHI student in WVSOM’s Class of 2022, said the event gave him an inside look at different industries and he appreciated the chance to speak with locals in those industries.
He said Bowe offered a piece of wisdom that he will always remember: Find out the history and background of a person and you will find out why they do the things they do.
“This is true in everyday life, but more so when you are taking care of patients,” Wong said. “In medicine it is important to know a patient’s history, and a big part of that is their work, as it’s the place where they spend most of their time. Rural Health Initiative events give us that opportunity.”
Savannah Keffer, a third-year student in the RHI program, said being able to hear from people firsthand about their industry is invaluable.
“By doing events like this we are able to add tools to our toolbox that may help us connect with patients in the future. Even if we are able to remember just a little bit, that may spark conversation that leads to a patient relaxing and actually telling us what’s wrong. Events like these are crucial for those of us who are planning to practice medicine in a rural area,” she said.
Keffer said that visiting the barrel factory was a highlight of her day.
“I have lived seven miles from the factory since it has been open, and I never knew how impressive it is, including the technology that was designed to protect workers. Barrel making used to be a very dangerous job, but now, technology has revolutionized the process and saved quite a few arms and fingers in the process,” she said.
Currently 40 WVSOM students participate in the RHI program. Industry events in previous years have included coal mining, poultry, agriculture and logging and timber.