Christopher Li, a second-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, hopes to change the world one day, one patient at a time. 

As cliché as that may sound, Li is already being recognized for his service work in various communities in the United States and overseas.

Last month, Li was honored with a Salute to Service Award by the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation. The annual award celebrates the efforts by a medical student or resident who has substantially improved patient care both locally and abroad.

“We’re told so many times that physicians should be community leaders,” Li said. “I believe there’s no better way than to volunteer in your community – to help make it better and to help build up whatever community you’re in.”

Li’s desire to help others began as a child. He was raised in a holistic household where he was brought up doing yoga and meditation alongside his parents, Ganesha and Ruth Li of Rockville, Md., and was witness to his mother’s lifelong activism in social welfare and passion for spiritual causes.

Someday he hopes to establish a lifestyle clinic that incorporates mind-body techniques into traditional allopathic medicine.

As a neuroscience major at Duke University, Li volunteered at the hospital’s Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Center, where he spent time with youngsters awaiting surgery. He also volunteered as a research subject, which is how this once “no-way-I’ll-ever-go-to-medical-school” student met a mentor who would convince him otherwise.

Dr. Steven Melton, an anesthesiologist with Duke’s Ambulatory Division, saw a desire and talent in Li that he thought would be well suited for doctoring. Melton was also one of Li’s nominators.

“What sets Chris apart from his peers and colleagues is his curious, determined, and ambitious nature,” Melton said. “While the problems the underserved face may seem insurmountable and overwhelming to some, Chris is eager to find lasting solutions instead of patching problems. With his mindset there is no telling what solutions he will be able to inspire and create.”

While in college, Li also volunteered with the Duke chapter of Manna Project International, a nonprofit organization that uses the passions and energy of young adults to empower developing communities worldwide through hands-on learning and service. Li helped organize a group trip to Nicaragua, where he provided education on hygiene, safe sex, nutrition, and exercise.

“It was my first time in a developing country,” Li said. “It was eye-opening to see such a wide wealth divide. Many people lived – literally – on tracts of trash. This really made me want to practice medicine in developing countries.”

As part of the Medical Society of Virginia award, the foundation made a donation to a charitable medical organization of Li’s choice. He selected the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, an organization that awards grants for mental health research.

Prior to medical school, Li worked two years with the National Institute of Mental Health investigating biological pathways of psychosis through research of schizophrenic patients. He acquired data for a drug study protocol probing the effect of three drugs on neurophysiological correlates of psychosis.

“Mental illnesses affect one in four adults, many of whom are untreated,” Li said. “I hope my contribution to this research will in some way have an impact on treatment.”

When Li entered the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, he relished the required first-year community service project. He chose volunteering at Camp Easter Seals as his official project, but like any born-to-serve veteran, he also quickly became involved in other projects. He volunteered at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia and Bradley Free Clinic and took on leadership roles in the American Medical Association Medical Student Section and the American Society of Anesthesiologists Student Governing Council.

As part of the American Medical Association’s “Walk around the World” service project, he was part of a group of volunteers who taught local elementary and middle-school children about healthy eating habits, positive lifestyle choices, and exercise. As a volunteer at the Bradley Free Clinic last year, Li worked in the clinic’s pharmacy and shadowed upperclassmen as they treated patients.

“I want to volunteer more at the Bradley Free Clinic this year,” Li said. “It’s a great way to learn more about Roanoke and to aid a population that is truly grateful for your help. And it’s a wonderful way to gain clinical experience that you can’t get elsewhere as a first- or second-year student.”

Li hopes to pursue a specialty in anesthesia and ultimately to open the lifestyle clinic he envisioned years ago, a place where people with chronic pain, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other debilitating conditions can be evaluated and, in many cases, be given a new lease on life.

“That’s my dream,” Li said. “I firmly believe one person cannot change the world, but when we change the world for one person, we actually end up affecting many people.”

Written by Catherine Doss.
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