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A healthier homecoming

August 15, 2011

By Cori Ast

First-year medical student Mallory McGinnis, pharmacy student Joanna Wakeman, and second-year medical student Lerin McCray were among the Nicodemus Project volunteers from KU Medical Center this year.

For one weekend each summer, the tiny town of Nicodemus, Kan., population 43, swells more than 10 times its size for a homecoming celebration unlike any other.

Nicodemus, settled in 1877, is the last remaining all African-American town founded by former slaves west of the Mississippi. Descendants of Nicodemus settlers flock to the town from across the country to commemorate emancipation from slavery and to celebrate their culture, family and shared history with food, sports, music, dancing...

...and health screenings. Since 1997, University of Kansas Medical Center students, faculty and staff have become an integral part of the celebration through the Nicodemus Project, which provides health screenings and adult health education to descendants and visitors alike.

When the Nicodemus celebration kicked off this year, 33 volunteers from KU Medical Center travelled to the town for the festivities on Saturday, July 29. The volunteers partnered with Swope Medical Services, the Greater Kansas City Black Nurses Association, and Let's Get Healthy, a project of Oregon Health and Science University to administer health screenings including blood pressure checks; glucose and cholesterol screenings; health education sessions, including healthy eating and sleeping habits, diet and body composition; and, in the privacy of the Swope Medical Services Mobile Medical Unit, cervical exams and prostate screening.

Asona Lui, a first-year medical/ PhD student from Topeka, Kan., was excited to be a part of the Nicodemus project. Lui, who was stationed to provide blood glucose and cholesterol screenings, assured a young woman whose parents both live with diabetes that she was healthy.

Her next sell, however, was a little more challenging.

"As I was checking the blood glucose of an older gentleman, I asked him if he was going to continue through the screenings, including having a PSA test that would check for prostate cancer," said Lui. The man, who wasn't planning on the test, agreed at Lui's insistence. "I upsold him from a glucose test to a prostate exam," she said with a proud smile.

The passion for improving the health of the homecoming attendees, coupled with deep respect for the town's history, has helped the relationship between Nicodemus and KU Medical Center endure, said Patricia Thomas, MD, MA, who directs the effort.

"In the earlier years of the Nicodemus Project, descendants were very protective of the celebration, until we were able to establish trust," said Thomas, associate dean for the Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity. "Now, that they know us, we are able to screen many people each year."

Those relationships proved invaluable this year. A woman in her fifties visiting the health screening tent this year credited the Nicodemus Project with saving her relative's life. In a previous year, her relative had been screened and was found to have an abnormally high blood pressure; he was rushed to the hospital, and the Nicodemus Project was able to get him on medication immediately.

"It's doing something good in a very, very special atmosphere. The homecoming celebration, whether it's 1,000 people or 50, is a very inspiring event," said Thomas. "We aren't descendants, but KU is part of the tradition now. We take students from all ilks to interact with each other and with the people of Nicodemus. It's a unique, diverse learning experience."

The experience is more than multicultural. It is also multidisciplinary. Physicians, nurses, doctor in nursing  practice students, pharmacy students, public health students, medical students, and undergraduates all work together to provide the variety of screenings at Nicodemus.

"It was nice to have a well-rounded population of health care providers," said Brian Gardner, first-year medical student and Nicodemus Project volunteer. "There's always something to learn from each other."

That was true not only for the students, but for experienced professionals as well. K. Allen Greiner, MD, MPH, an associate professor of family medicine, and student Neil Bryan used the Nicodemus Project as an opportunity to  study health fairs' use of passport systems, which are stamped booklets designed to encourage participants to visit every screening station, as well as keep all of the medical information collected in one place for the patient. The research also explores individual's perceptions of what might be most valuable at future health fairs.

Coordinating the clinical care, student education, and academic research aspects is always a challenge, but the experience was worth the work for Nadia Saina, student coordinator of the Nicodemus Project.  

"This is our opportunity to reach out to a community that may not have access to these services otherwise," said Saina, a second-year medical student.

Thomas explained the reason for working to improve health in Nicodemus and other communities is really quite simple: "If you don't make a difference, what's the point?"

The presence of Let's Get Healthy at this year's Nicodemus Project was made possible due to collaboration between Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) and Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) at KU Medical Center and Oregon Health Sciences University. These grants, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), encourage partnerships across organizations to improve public health. Click the grant name to learn more about the program: SEPA Kansas (, Frontiers: The Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (, and Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute (

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018