The Fall 2018 class of Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) Scholars includes students from all over the region, in various stages of life with one common goal – to make a difference in healthcare throughout Appalachia. Twice a year, students from across the region are invited to apply for the ARH Scholars program. Recipients are awarded a $5,000 academic scholarship to pursue a degree in healthcare.
Connor Leisge grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, and he’s setting himself up to give back to that same community. He’s currently enrolled in the College of Dentistry at the University of Kentucky (UK). Connor decided to pursue the medical field in high school after his positive experience with the nurses and doctors who cared for him during a long hospital visit.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a major chest reconstructive surgery done,” Connor says. “I had a condition called pectus excavatum, a birth defect in your sternum which makes it curve inward like you’ve got a hole in your chest. I was very self-conscious about it, which is why it took me so long to seek treatment. While I was in the hospital, the nurses, the doctors, everybody was fantastic. As hard as the experience was physically, emotionally I was perfectly stable because the nurses and doctors were so great.”
Overall, Connor spent 33 days with the medical staff. While many might choose to focus on the obvious negatives of a lengthy hospital stay, post-major surgery, Connor was simply grateful for the caregivers and medical staff who encouraged him daily on his road to healing and recovery.
“That was pretty life changing,” Connor says. “It definitely sparked my interest in the medical field. I wanted to give back and help people’s lives like mine was helped.”
Pursuing higher education in healthcare has always been a goal of Connor’s and he’s thankful to ARH for helping him along this path. His biggest inspiration comes from his grandfather, who instilled in him the determination to pursue this goal.
“At a young age, my grandfather made the importance of education apparent for me and my cousins,” he says. “His story of barely getting through high school but then getting his degree in education and later becoming principal and superintendent in Pineville, Kentucky, was a big inspiration for me.”
This motivation to make higher learning a priority led Connor to dentistry, a field he described as the obvious career path to follow.
“One thing I cherished growing up was that I had very good hand skills,” Connor says. “I loved to draw, I loved artsy things. It just clicked in high school that I had good hand skills and it took good hand skills to be a dentist.”
Connor found out about the ARH Scholars program through his girlfriend, who is also an ARH Scholar. When he found out he won, Connor was delighted ARH valued his determination to give back to his hometown in Harlan through volunteerism and the dental services he hopes to one day provide.
“A lot of people in Harlan that I know can’t wait to get out of here and never come back,” he says. “I’m glad ARH noticed that I feel differently. I want to build it up to be something to be proud of.”
“The scholars are selected by the ARH Scholars Judging Committee,” says Danya Anderson, ARH Scholars Coordinator. “Once I receive the applications, I prepare them to be sent to the committee by making them a ‘blind’ application, which makes it fair for each applicant. The Scholars award is paid in two installments of $2,500 directly to the school. One is payable after verification and the other is paid the following year. For this round, we had 73 applicants with 10 finalists awarded.”
So far on his route to becoming a dentist, Connor has volunteered with Mission Lexington, an organization dedicated to giving dental care to Lexington residents at or below the poverty line. He’s also worked with children as part of the dental program at UK, which is important to him, as he wants to act as an inspiration to the future generation of Harlan County.
“I want to point out to kids that just because they’re from somewhere like Harlan, becoming a dentist or a doctor isn’t unobtainable,” Connor says. “If they want to do that, they should go
Connor eventually intends to open his own practice in Harlan County, with a mission for his practice to be a positive force in both the community and the medical field overall.
“I want to be able to build relationships with my patients and get rid of the negative stigma of going to the doctor,” he says. “I want to build people’s self-confidence up, to make them healthier physically but also mentally.”