Hundreds of pairs of eyes turned skyward as a whirring drone delivered prescription medications to the annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic in Wise County, Va., on July 17, 2015. Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other dignitaries were on hand to celebrate the first government-approved drone delivery in the United States, described by some as a “Kitty Hawk moment.”

Christian Voto, ’16, had special cause for celebration. As a summer intern with the Health Wagon, a Southwest Virginia-based nonprofit that provides health care to medically underserved people in Appalachia, Voto was responsible for finalizing the arrangements for the drone-delivery project, which was covered by national and international media.

In executing the project, he used skills he learned through his business administration minor, while simultaneously exploring medical issues related to his major in biochemistry. 

“Christian recruited 30 patients, scheduled delivery times, found medications, and ensured that the patients arrived during the event,” said David Meade, Health Wagon director of operations.

If it becomes a well-established process, drone delivery of prescription medications could prove a boon for hard-to-reach communities that struggle with access to health-care resources.

In addition to the drone-delivery project, Voto and other Health Wagon staff helped coordinate other aspects of the Wise County, Va., RAM, which ranks as the nation’s largest free health clinic and served more than 2,000 unique patients between July 17-19.

Voto also shadowed nurses and doctors throughout his internship, gaining valuable insights into the health-care issues prevalent in Southwest Virginia, where almost 20 percent of people live below the poverty line.

Voto described an encounter he had with a family served by the Health Wagon: “A mother explained she had no money to pay for her kids to get physicals and they wanted to play sports.

“Her 14-year-old had last been to a doctor when he was two. He needed glasses and had a heart murmur, so he has to see a cardiologist before he can play high school football. We negotiated with the health-care providers to get her son taken care of.

“The Health Wagon has started a lot of health-care education, such as making parents aware of health-care coverage for their kids. For example, this mother could have been getting health-care coverage for her 14-year-old all along.”

Learning about health-care issues in Appalachia was an eye-opening experience for Voto who hails from Long Island, N.Y., where he remembers listening to the conversations of the doctors who frequented his grandparents’ Italian diner.

“This summer’s experience was the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life,” Voto said. “But I wanted to challenge myself, to go outside my comfort zone.”

When the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded him a Burhans Civic Fellowship to undertake the Health Wagon internship, he accepted that challenge enthusiastically.

“I connected with people who are very different from me, and this will make me a better physician,” Voto said. “I now know how to communicate with and treat patients who are uninsured or underinsured.

“Some of the most prevalent health issues we saw in our Health Wagon patients are related to smoking and high-fat, high-cholesterol diets. Many of our patients are diabetic. Many have mental-health issues.

“A lot of people use prescription drugs to self-medicate. This is why the Health Wagon doesn’t prescribe narcotics.”

Voto learned not only about health care, but also about a way of life in rural Virginia coal country. He bonded with Health Wagon staff members, including his supervisor, David Meade.

“I taught David how to cook Italian food,” Voto said, “and he taught me how to ride a four-wheeler. He took me to Dollywood. He said he would turn me into a country boy, and now I’m listening to country music.”

Voto also credited George Hiller, his Civic Fellowship faculty mentor who has long-standing ties to the Health Wagon, with providing invaluable academic support throughout the internship. “He was extremely invested in my internship and even came and volunteered during the RAM clinic,” Voto said.

“I have always had a dream of returning home to New York City to study and practice medicine in the Northeast,” Voto said. “My experience with the Health Wagon affirmed that I want to be a doctor, but now I am considering being a generalist rather than a specialist and working in a rural community.”

Photo: Christian Voto, left, and Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, celebrate the first drone delivery of medication in the United States at the Wise RAM on July 17, 2015.