Advocating for Underserved Communities in Maine: Two Community Health Workers Share Their Stories

December 5, 2023

Axels Samuntu and Solange Tchatat, community health workers in Maine.

Axels Samuntu (left) and Solange Tchatat (right) are community health workers in Maine who were trained through programs at MCD Global Health and are participating in the Care for the Underserved Pathways AHEC Scholars Program.

MCD Global Health (MCD) is implementing a multi-year Community Health Worker (CHW) Training Program to provide CHW core competency training, enhanced upskill training, and opportunities to participate in a Maine-certified CHW apprenticeship program, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Essential to the public health workforce, CHWs are trusted community members who often have their own lived experience and a unique set of core competencies recognized by local, state and federal governmental organizations.

Part of MCD’s efforts to increase the CHW workforce in Maine includes providing CHWs educational and professional development opportunities. The partnership with the Care for the Underserved Pathways AHEC Scholars Program (CUP AHEC Scholars Program), through the University of New England (UNE), bridges the gap between community-based and traditional academic learning.

The collaboration allows CHWs, and other health-profession students from UNE, to gain interprofessional and team-based practice education, cultivating new generations of diverse and highly equipped health care professionals. The AHEC Scholars Program will enroll five students per year from MCD’s CHW Training Program.

Solange Tchatat and Axels Samuntu, two CHWs and MCD alumni who were recently accepted into the program, discuss their experiences on how they found their place as CHWs in Maine.

Making People Smile

Originally from the central African country of Cameroon, Solange Tchatat has always liked helping people and making them happy. Solange recently completed MCD’s CHW Core Competency Training Program and works as a CHW at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland, Maine.

Solange Tchatat with MCD CEO and President Chris Schwabe.

MCD CEO and President Chris Schwabe, Ph.D., and Solange Tchatat (right) at a CHW event in Maine.

Prior to completing MCD’s CHW program in spring 2023, she worked as a certified clinical medical assistant. When she landed her new role as a CHW, she felt nervous at first, but “the course really gave [her] confidence and the power to do [her job].”

“My job as a CHW has really been the enlightenment of my life because the faculty [during MCD’s training] were some of the best that I’ve ever had,” Solange described. “They were so open to questions and even had a day during the week to answer any questions. I never missed it because I really wanted to get everything from them that I needed for my job and that has really impacted my work.”

The training made Solange feel more confident in the work that she does and notices that it’s “easier than before to jump in and help.”

She currently assists 16 women and 17 children at the hospital’s Women’s Health Center, and being a former medical assistant helps her know “exactly what they need and how to address those needs.”

As a CHW, Solange serves as a vital link between health care providers and patients. In cases where a provider is unable to reach a patient, Solange can be contacted to connect with the patient and assess the situation.

Solange Tchatat working the Northern Light Mercy Hospital booth at an event.

Solange Tchatat talking to a visitor at the Northern Light Mercy Hospital booth at an event.

"Most of the time, I will go and tell them that if [the issue is] something confidential, then they don't need to share information if they don't want to (with other residents or staff at the residence), and no one [has the right] to tell them to share information,” she said. “Being a medical assistant, I really know what HIPAA is, and being a CHW and knowing the patient very deeply, I try teaching them what HIPAA is.”

Solange shared a situation where a social worker at a hospital in Maine and herself worked together with a patient who was pregnant and needed an interpreter.

“Usually what I do when I get in the room and the patient has an interpreter, I do not speak that much unless the interpreter is stuck with a word or phrase and doesn’t know the medical term or something like that,” she described.

The patient had a lot of questions, but she was afraid of asking. Solange noticed this and encouraged the patient to ask her questions.

“I started to notice her body language, and what I saw informed me that she had many things to ask, but because, in her mind, she was afraid to ask, she didn't know if she could,” Solange said. “Because she was speaking French, I asked in French if she needed anything and that Jenna is here in case you need something, and it seems as if you need something. After that, she opened up, and it turned out that she needed something almost daily but was afraid to address it at first.”

Solange credits these types of successes to her skills as a CHW and building a connection with patients. Those skills allowed her to advocate for the underserved patients at the hospital, that drove her organization to make some changes in their system benefiting not only her patients, but all the people who are patients of the hospital.

CHWs are able to go into the details and address any concerns that a patient may have, including understanding consultations with providers and other scenarios. “They fill in the missing voids and build that trust.”

Solange wants to continue her passion of helping people and putting a smile on their faces while working in a more rural area because “they really need help and someone who is going to advocate for them.”

“It’s a privilege to be among the chosen for this scholar program, and I’m so excited,” she said. “This will really boost my knowledge about my responsibilities concerning patients, concerning the community, and even concerning the state of Maine because I love working in Maine.”

From Medical Doctor to CHW

Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Axels Samuntu was trained as a medical physician and then moved to the U.S. in 2016 where he now works as the outreach and training coordinator for MCD’s CHW training program and the Maine Community Health Worker (MCHW) Initiative.

Axels Samuntu talking to someone about CHW training at an event.

Axels Samuntu talking about CHW training programs at an event in Maine.

Growing up in the DRC, Axel’s father was a medical doctor, which influenced him to follow a similar path. His father would take him to the hospital, and Axels would watch as his father treated people and he would ask questions.

"That feeling started to grow in me, and I would say that I want to be like my dad because I saw my dad help people in hospital when they came in with problems,” he described. “I was a kid, and I would see someone come in with pain and then my dad would treat him and then the patient would leave feeling better.”

This led Axels to have a passion for wanting to help people that followed him through high school and beyond, where he became a doctor in the DRC.

Before transitioning into a CHW, Axels was looking for his place in Maine. He was uncertain about how to leverage his medical degree given the differences in medical training between the DRC and the U.S. He took various courses, such as EMT and medical emergency classes, but still didn’t find his path.

Axels earned two degrees in public health and health care and patient safety from the University of Southern Maine. He initially worked as a direct support professional, progressing to a CHW role in 2020 for the City of Portland, Maine. Then, he worked for more than three years for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a field epidemiologist and case investigator for hepatitis C and COVID-19.

It was during his enrollment in classes about CHWs and MCD’s CHW Core Competency training that Axels found a sense of purpose.

“It’s like I’m in more contact with the community than when I worked in a hospital,” Axels described. “But when you're in a community, you could meet everywhere with everyone, every time. You meet with people who trust you, and you feel like, ‘This is what I want to be in life.’ Being closer to the community and being able to help a number of people versus just one-on-one, and being at the frontline advocating for people are reasons why it is perfect for me."

Like Solange, Axels was also accepted into the UNE AHEC Scholars Program. He is excited and believes the program will help him accomplish his goal in a different way.

“This program will add to my knowledge and help me understand how I could talk with the community and serve my community, the underserved community,” he said.

The collaboration between MCD Global Health and the AHEC Scholars Program represents a vital recognition of the valuable skills and contributions of CHWs. This partnership not only highlights the unique abilities of CHWs, but also elevates them as crucial members of the broader public health profession, fostering a more inclusive team-based approach to addressing complex health challenges.

Learn more about MCD's CHW efforts

health systems strengthening