Walking the Walk

Milele Bynum capped her long journey from medical school to motherhood and back again with a national award for the success of her community health program.

Walking the Walk click to enlarge Milele Bynum presents her research at Student Research Day
Walking the Walk click to enlarge (L to R): Hugh Smith, Robert Bashford, Milele Bynum, Julie Byerley, Cedric Bright

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

More than 15 years after initially attending UNC, Milele Bynum is on the cusp of achieving her dream of graduating from medical school. Bynum is proud of how she got here and knows that the wealth of experiences gathered on her journey has made her a better student and will make her a better physician.

“So many of our patients are incredibly stressed out and scared,” she said. “I can relate to that. There have been plenty of times in the last several years when I’ve been scared myself.”

Bynum first matriculated at the UNC  School of Medicine in 1999. In her third year, she was hospitalized while pregnant with twins. When her twins were born at 28 weeks, Bynum decided to step away from medical school to focus on their care.

“I knew I could eventually come back to school, but you only get one chance to raise your kids,” she said. “So, I spent ten years being a mom.”

Once her children started school, Bynum considered returning to UNC. In 2011, she knew the time was right. She was accepted back, but in her time away, the UNC School of Medicine curriculum had completely changed. She was told she’d have to start from square one.

Though the curriculum had changed, other things had not, and the support of familiar faces helped her overcome that setback.

“Coming back really did feel like a welcome home,” Bynum said. “There were so many familiar faces in the faculty and staff who were here the first time around and they were overwhelming in their encouragement and support.”

Her husband, a police officer, has also never wavered in his support of Bynum’s dream.

“He’s so committed,” she said. “There have been so many sacrifices, so many late nights and early mornings, but he knows how important this is for our entire family.”

In what she calls her “second tour of duty,” Bynum has thrived, earning national attention for her community service work, including the Franklin McLean Award, the highest honor given by National Medical Fellows Inc. The award is presented annually to a medical student who has shown outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and community service.

Bynum was honored for her faith-based community fitness program, “Walking in Faith.” The program uses principles of faith and passages from The Bible to encourage church members to exercise and eat healthfully. It was launched at First Calvary Baptist Church in Durham.

“Weight is something that I personally have struggled with, and it’s also a problem in the African American community,” Bynum said. “So, I looked at the available resources across the community and found an opportunity to make a difference.”

As a part of the program, lay leaders at First Calvary receive the education and training necessary to facilitate the program. In addition to leading church members in group walks several days a week, they also give nutrition tips, and share Bible teachings that relate to health and the importance of taking care of one’s body.

Bynum said she found a community center with an indoor track so that weather would never be an excuse. Over time, the program has expanded to four sessions a week.

And it has worked.

“We’ve shown that this intervention decreased blood pressure, increased fruit and vegetable intake, and increased physical activity,” Bynum said. “When we started, 24 percent of participants were doing 150 minutes of physical activity a week; by the end, such participation had grown to more than 60 percent.

 “We are showing participants and the community that dedication to modifying and improving your nutrition and exercise habits can lead to long term gains.”

After the program’s initial success in Durham, Bynum said she was approached by other congregations across North Carolina that are interested in the program, and there are plans to extend it to other sites.

Bynum praised her faculty mentors Keisha Gibson, MD, and Giselle Corbie-Smith, MD, for helping her see the project through from her initial conception.

“Students at UNC are afforded so many incredible opportunities,” Bynum said. “It’s one thing for a school to say on a website or in brochures that it supports its students, but the faculty and administration at UNC have always backed it up.”

Now, with only a few months remaining in medical school, Bynum is planning for residency and hopes to pursue family medicine, with the ultimate goal of practicing in an underserved community.

“Much like the impact we’ve made with Walking in Faith, family medicine has a chance to affect a patient’s health across the entire spectrum of care,” Bynum said.

She added that her family has inspired her to keep moving forward, and one day she hopes to provide that same inspiration to patients.

“Recently, my daughter had a school assignment where she was asked to write about what she was proudest of, and she said she was proudest of me for never giving up on my dream,” Bynum said. “That’s a message I think everyone can learn from: It’s never too late to follow through on your dream.”

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