As a legislative correspondent on healthcare policy for then U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, David Gittess knew he wanted to have a more direct impact on patients. The quest led him to UCF’s College of Medicine, where his passion for helping has earned him a national Excellence in Public Health Service Award.

The honor, given by the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services, recognizes medical students’ contribution to public health — specifically aligning with the goals of HHS’ health promotion and disease prevention programs.

“This award is a confirmation that I am so lucky to have found what I was destined to do — to have a career that brings medicine and service together,” Gittess says. “I really can’t see any other career that I would rather be doing. I’m fortunate to have been able to take on leadership positions at the College of Medicine, solve interesting challenges and make an impact on so many lives.”

Now a second-year medical student, Gittess’ journey to medicine was a winding path with pit stops and detours. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Tuft’s University in Massachusetts, he got a job as a mail manager in Nelson’s office in Washington, D.C.

In less than a year he moved up the ranks to legislative correspondent for healthcare policy, responding to constituent’s questions and concerns about healthcare. He became immersed in healthcare and public health and saw how doctors incorporated service into their work and directly helping others.

“At that point, I became sure this was the best career for me,” Gittess says.

And so, three years after completing his international relations degree, he enrolled at University of Pennsylvania for a two-year pre-med program. While at UPenn, he volunteered at a refugee clinic in Philadelphia where he created a healthcare education program and a transition project that connected refugee patients to providers. He came to the UCF College of Medicine in 2018.

“In UCF, I saw a school that seemed open to new ideas, and I felt like I really had the chance to make a lasting impact.”

“In UCF, I saw a school that seemed open to new ideas,” Gittess says, “and I felt like I really had the chance to make a lasting impact, to leave my own personal stamp on some UCF program. Also, being an Orlando native, UCF has been a constant presence in my life. I like the spirit of the school, and each time I’d come home, I was always surprised by how UCF had continued to grow and improve.”

At the College of Medicine, Gittess immediately became active in student organizations, becoming a service director for MedPACt (Medical Students Providing Care Across Continents). Through MedPACt he helped run a multidisciplinary clinic that provides care to more than 100 farmworkers in Apopka. He formed a partnership with the Florida Department of Health to provide free hepatitis A vaccines to the farmworkers and helped lead a multidisciplinary mission trip to a rural clinic in Yantalo, Peru, that treated provided are to more than 400 patients, including 26 surgeries.

“There’s something rewarding about the trust that those patients have in us and the gratitude they show,” Gittess says. “They help us more than we help them.”

Gittess also helped launch the Chapman Compassionate Care clinic that provides care to the homeless population in downtown Orlando. The clinic started out with wound care, and soon expanded to include wound prevention measures, screening for uncontrolled diabetes and providing referrals for further care.

“When I look at the impact of these clinics — the lives we have changed with these vaccines, bringing supplies, and just providing much needed care — it makes the ‘book learning’ so much more exciting,” Gittess says, “to know there’s a real relevance to why I’m doing these things. And it just confirms that I found what I was looking to do in my life – serving others.”

Judy Simms-Cendan, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and faculty adviser for MedPACt, has worked side-by-side with Gittess in Peru and Apopka.

“David’s accomplishments in community service have been extraordinary in the short time he has been at our institution,” Simms-Cendan says. “He has a natural scholarly and mentoring disposition said that sets him apart from his peers. He is also very keen on using his analytic perspective for the constant quality improvement of the clinics he serves.”