Fourth-year medical student Luke Zona has been awarded a 2020 Excellence in Public Health Award by the U.S. Public Health Service that recognizes medical students across the country who advance public health and also exemplify its mission to protect and promote the health and safety of our nation.
When Ohio was reaching its No. 2 status in the U.S. in opioid-related overdose deaths and Toledo had reached the top 10 of all U.S. cities with the highest death rate, Zona saw an opportunity to make a difference.
Building on his initial personal hard work, and with some members of the Addiction Medicine Club, he founded the Toledo Naloxone Outreach Program and partnered with UToledo’s CommunityCare Clinic, a student-run free clinic for the uninsured and unemployed in the greater Toledo area. The outreach program aims to augment medical education on the topic of addiction. To that end, students are trained to obtain a substance use history and to provide local recovery resources to patients with drug addiction.
If a patient at the clinic had a positive drug history or indicated an interest in learning about naloxone as a potential overdose reversal drug, Zona and his students were able to train the patient and family members on-site at the time of the clinic visit. Naloxone was distributed free of charge to these patients from a grant through the Ohio Department of Health and the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.
“Developing the program and having the privilege to train patients on the use of naloxone and hearing their stories has helped open my eyes to the impact naloxone can have to give someone another chance at recovery from addiction,” Zona said.
This program has trained more than 1,000 individuals on the signs of opioid overdose and how to handle this situation including the appropriate administration of naloxone. He also has had an ongoing interest in training those trainers who give naloxone instruction to hundreds of first-year health professions students across campus who annually learn about drug addiction, overdose recognition and naloxone treatment during their required Interprofessional Education Course.
Seeing a need to further assist the underserved, Zona and his fellow outreach students, along with a physician mentor, provided often-needed medical attention to the underserved and homeless at the Labra Clinic, a traveling clinic at various street corners in downtown Toledo, thus affording access to care for those without transportation and funds.
Zona also has spent hours volunteering at the Northwest Ohio Syringe Service Site, which provides clean medical supplies to those using injectable drugs, in addition to information and testing for HIV and referral for mental health services as needed. He was the lead author for a presentation, “Toledo Naloxone Outreach Program: Development and Demographics,” given at the University of Kansas Medical Center and at the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association Conference in 2019.
Dr. Donna Woodson, professor emerita in the Department of Medical Education, nominated Zona for the honor.
“When Dr. Woodson notified me she had nominated me for the award, I felt honored to receive such a nomination,” Zona said. “I could not have developed the Toledo Naloxone Outreach Program without the help of Alex Petrak, a fellow medical student, and Shelby Timmerman, a pharmacy student.”
As graduation approaches in May, Zona said he plans to specialize in psychiatry.
“My future career plan is to specialize in psychiatry and provide psychotherapy to a subset of my patients,” he said. “I also plan to continue to provide free medical services to the uninsured and underinsured by partnering with local free clinics wherever I end up practicing.”