Medical student’s experiences with poverty lead to a calling in service to community
When Lauren “LB” Canary’s single mother lost her job in 2007, her family of three had to quickly adjust their way of living. Electricity, for example, became a luxury, and Canary recalls studying for her college courses by flashlight and wrapped in blankets to stay warm.
“Caring for those less fortunate has always been something close to my heart,” said Canary, a third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM). “But having experienced poverty myself made it even closer. It helped me better understand the challenges of life in poverty and how hard each day is. It’s difficult to prioritize your health in that situation.”
Growing up in such dire circumstances developed Canary’s sense of empathy for others.
“Here we were, a suburban Maryland family, no health insurance, using leftover dog medication for myself,” she said. “If it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone.”
Canary, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Emory University, spent her free time during graduate school testing for hepatitis C and assisting with distribution of sterile needles as part of a harm reduction program in Atlanta.
“I studied public health because I was interested in the systems that were impacting people on a large scale,” she said. “But ultimately, the drive to connect with individuals, like I did on the streets, has always been there for me.”
Canary entered VTCSOM in 2020, and within a few weeks, her mother died of lung cancer. The camaraderie and warm spirit of the school and her classmates helped carry her through.
“I have never been more grateful to be here than during that time,” she said. “One of the reasons I chose this school was because everyone told me during my visits that they were like a family here, and I wanted that. But I didn’t realize how early on I’d have to lean on them.”
Canary immersed herself in organizations and causes dedicated to serving those less fortunate. One was the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the health of the drug-using community by advocating for, developing, and implementing evidence-based solutions to address the adverse effects of drug use. Canary has traveled with a mobile unit through impoverished areas of western Virginia and West Virginia to assist with overdose prevention, distributing syringes, offering testing and immunizations for drug-related illnesses, and providing counseling and resources.
“Our hope is that if we can support people to stay alive long enough, we can get them the help they need,” she said. “And in the meantime, we can also prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”
The coalition was founded by VTCSOM alum Andrew Gaddis, now a resident physician in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Canary similarly hopes to build out a street medicine program using a mobile unit to offer clinical services in an environment that is more comfortable for underserved populations.
“I want to help medical students understand what people are facing, how hard it is to get to a doctor’s appointment, and overall start to break down the stigma that has negatively impacted the health care of some of these clients,” Canary said.
When she isn’t attending to her studies or assisting with the harm reduction program, Canary serves on the board of directors for RAM House, the largest day shelter for homeless individuals in Roanoke. She created a COVID-19 vaccination training under VTCSOM’s Public Health Club, was co-founder of the Virginia Hepatitis Coalition, and is a member of the National Rural Health Association's Rural Health Congress. During her first year in medical school, Canary founded VTCSOM’s Medical Student Pride Alliance.
Canary said the activity that has meant the most to her is MedDOCS. Last year, she partnered with classmates to establish and implement the program under the Student National Medical Association chapter at VTCSOM, that introduces teenagers from communities underrepresented in medicine to medical school curricula.
“Seeing kids excited about medicine means so much to me,” she said. “There’s something about working with youth and giving them hope, resilience, and skills for the future that’s really exciting to me.”
Canary’s advocacy for the disenfranchised has been noticed on the state and national levels. She has been recognized by the Medical Society of Virginia with the 2022 Salute to Service award for her service to those less fortunate, and last month, she and fellow VTCSOM student Raymond Uymatiao received prestigious scholarships from the National Health Services Corps, which cover the cost of the remainder of their medical studies in return for their practice in underrepresented communities after residency.
One of the founding missions of VTCSOM was to develop physician thought leaders who would return to ease the critical physician shortage in Southwest Virginia. So far, seven alums have returned to practice medicine in the region. Canary hopes to join them. She was smitten with VTCSOM upon her first visit, and she and her wife, Danny Clawson, immediately fell in love with the Roanoke Valley.
“We love it here. It is just so incredible in terms of quality of life,” she said. The two recently got married and bought a house in southeast Roanoke. Clawson recently became executive director of the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, and they plan to continue serving the community together for years to come. Canary took on a volunteer coaching job for the Fishwick Middle School girls softball team and plans to host the second annual Lung Cancer Awareness Month 5K run in honor of her late mother in November.
She and Danny love the outdoors, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and everything else the region has to offer.
“We’ve already made this our home, and we’re both very much looking forward to continuing our service to the community.”