Talented advocate Smith pushes to improve health care

When Carson Emmons Smith wasn’t working in her parents’ bicycle and fitness shop in Paducah, Ky., she was dribbling a soccer ball, whacking a softball, pirouetting in a dance studio or bouncing on her trampoline.

“I love the outdoors,” says Smith, who also admits to growing up a bookworm. Naturally, it was under the spell of a particularly bright, sunny day that Smith succumbed to the breathtaking beauty of autumn on the Danforth Campus.

Photo by David Kilper

Carson Emmons Smith was shy as a child, but now she’s an outspoken advocate for health organizations in St. Louis and Paducah, Ky., her hometown.

“The weather just seemed to be nudging me that this was where I wanted to be,” she says of her first visit. “But it’s been the people at WUSTL — my friends, professors and administrators — who have kept me engaged for the past four years.”

On May 15, Smith receives a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in public health. She hopes to put her education and experiences to work one day to improve the nation’s health-care system.

Plans to earn a joint master’s degree in public health and social work are sure to further her goal and sharpen her unique insights into the health-care system. At 16, Smith was diagnosed with a rare lung condition called pulmonary veno-occlusive disease (PVOD).

“I’ve spent more than my share of time in the hospital having tests and acting as a guinea pig,” Smith says. She is on a wait list for a double-lung transplant but has inactive status because her condition has been stabilized.

“Thankfully, I have a wonderful support network in my family and friends,” she says, “but I have seen and heard stories of people who are not as lucky.”

While interning at the Pulmonary Hypertension Association in Silver Spring, Md., after her sophomore year, Smith spoke with people unable to work or afford insurance due to illness. “These experiences made my heart ache and opened my eyes,” she says.

The following summer, she returned to Paducah to work at Lourdes Healthcare Systems. She shadowed doctors and administrators. She also observed social workers frustrated by limitations of Medicare and Medicaid and by the crippling financial burdens on patients and their families.

Smith has interned at the American Lung Association in St. Louis and, in February, assumed the post of research assistant at the Center for Tobacco Policy Research at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

College of Arts & Sciences

Painfully shy as a child — “My mom used to make me go out of my way to say ‘hello’ to people in the grocery or on our walk to school” — Smith later discovered she had a very strong voice, which she has projected on behalf of others.

Since 2003, she has served as spokeswoman for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association in both Paducah and St. Louis, for Second Wind St. Louis and for Mid-America Transplant Association.

“I’m much more outgoing today,” Smith says, “and I push myself to be better and do more than I ever knew possible.”

Smith enrolled at WUSTL as a John B. Ervin Scholar, a distinction awarded to students who have demonstrated exceptional intellect, leadership and community service.

“Most people who know Carson know about her work with Student Union and her support of organ donation,” says Laura Stephenson, assistant director of the Ervin Scholars Program.

“What most people don’t know is how supportive Carson is to everyone around her,” Stephenson says. “She is often the sounding board for many of her friends and can usually be found sharing their terrific accomplishments with others.”

Named a Toyota Scholar — one of “100 Students Most Likely to Change the World” — her senior year of high school, Smith seems destined to accomplish great things but never loses sight of the smaller picture.

“I have learned to treat everyone with kindness because you never know when someone’s having a bad day, and to take care of your body because it’s the only one you get,” she says.

“Knowledge is power, and attitude is everything,” says Smith, with a nod to cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“I really do believe that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent what you decide to do with it,” she says.