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Ben Colburn ’06

Ben Colburn, MD ’06 learned early in life that if the opportunities you want don’t exist, it’s up to you to create them.
As one of the first openly gay students enrolled at HRA in the early 2000s with limited resources available at that time, that meant founding one of Virginia’s inaugural gay-straight alliances to create the support he wanted and exploring curricula for AP courses that HRA hadn’t offered (yet). And in the fifteen years since he graduated, that drive has led him to a dream job in family medicine and community organizing through stories.   

After leaving HRA, Ben went on to study medical anthropology at Brown University (Class of ’10) then earn his MD at University of California-San Francisco (UCSF, Class of ‘17). This year, he finished a 4-year family medicine residency at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon where he has learned to care for low-income patients from cradle to grave and support them through the struggles and triumphs in between. When Ben’s patients share their stories of adversity in the exam room with him, his unique blend of training allows him to listen deeply and ask how he can support his patients in the same way others have helped support him. Every day, he comes home from work knowing he made a difference in someone’s life and feeling energized to keep fighting for systemic change so his future patients have opportunities to tell different, more hopeful stories.

Everyone eventually has an important story to tell about their relationship to health and healthcare, but there are relatively few places to talk candidly about them. Fueled by his daily work with low-income patients and the healthcare workers who serve them, Ben created “The Interstitium”, a public storytelling event that brings these groups together to learn from each other as peers and share their experiences with the communities they live in. Three to four times a year, the event rents out a public theater and hands the microphone to patients who rarely have a chance to tell their stories and several medical professionals who generally don’t discuss their work outside of work. Throughout the evening, audience members get to witness their neighbors be more vulnerable than usual and also learn about community organizing efforts related to their stories. The goal of “The Interstitium” isn’t to educate or shock listeners - it is to connect as humans in a way that is often not possible within a clinical environment and inspire them to become more civically engaged.
Ben credits the solid educational foundation he received at HRA, as well as his family, friends, and allies for teaching him that with enough hard work, creativity, and persistence, he truly can change the world: “Learning how to learn in a place like HRA is an incredible privilege you will probably not fully appreciate until you leave - push yourself to take advantage of every opportunity it offers you, big or small.” His biggest advice to fellow Navigators is to “assume you are capable of anything until you try and learn otherwise. The biggest reason most people miss out on opportunities in life is because they never found the courage to try.”
In Fall 2021, Ben will be joining a large Pacific Northwest healthcare system that will allow him to continue working in primary care, urgent/emergency care, and hospital medicine. He also recently celebrated the one year wedding anniversary with his husband Tim and also of his mother Marnee’s move west to them nearby in Portland. He plans to continue producing and growing “The Interstitium” for both public and academic consumption and eventually hopes his project can help spark conversations about health equity for all levels of learners.

To learn more about “The Interstitium” and learn how you can tune in virtually, visit their partner organization The Northwest Narrative Medicine Collaborative