“Providing knowledge to these patients and families allows them to take control over their health. It provides hope.”

Nutrition alumna Alina Schmidt ’17 is making the impact she always dreamed of as a clinical dietitian at Baystate Medical Center. She currently serves on the medical surgery and cardiac floor, assessing and tending to patients’ nutritional needs via physical tests, prescribed diets, and counseling.

Schmidt credits her time as a high school athlete as the inspiration that led her to pursue a career in nutrition. “When I was a midfielder in field hockey, I began to notice at timeouts during games my hands were shaking uncontrollably.” She sought to discover why, and soon learned that her diet wasn’t providing her body with enough fuel to get her through the games. “Thus began my interest and appreciation for the power food has on our overall health,” she says.

Her blossoming interest in nutrition led her to study how dietary changes could help her to deliver peak athletic performances. After high school, the nutrition program at UMass felt like a natural extension of her desire to better understand the relationship between diet, foods, and health.

There, she found an interdisciplinary approach to nutrition, one that emphasized cultural competencies and community outreach. She recalls one experience in particular that sticks with her to this day.

“I took a class focused on food scarcity and the long-term effects of nutritional deficiencies with Lorraine Cordeiro. We read Seng Ty’s The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge. The book is a firsthand account of his experiences in the agricultural labor camps during the Cambodian genocide. Little food was available in the camps and the foods offered were not dense with nutrients. Many in the camp would try to scavenge for additional nutrition but the repercussions of getting caught were severe.”

“We were fortunate enough to actually meet Seng Ty,” she continues. “I could sense just by looking into his eyes the long-lasting effects of this atrocity. At this moment I realized the magnitude of power food can have over one's life. I carry this moment with me every day when I see patients who are ‘noncompliant to diets.’”

Alina Schmidt in a garden.

Following her graduation from UMass, Schmidt enrolled in a dietetic internship (DI) program in Illinois. A lifelong Western Mass native, Schmidt found herself outside of her comfort zone — an experience she credits with teaching her the importance of listening.

“I utilize this every day when I work with patients who are going through incredibly difficult situations. It’s easy being the person telling patients what to do; it is far harder being the one to actually implement it,” she says.

At Baystate, Schmidt sees a wide variety of patients with differing nutritional needs and restrictions.

“As a dietitian my perspective of food involves metabolic processes that involve biology and chemistry on a molecular level,” she says. “The vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients you eat directly relate to your ability to function and perform everyday tasks like seeing, walking, breathing. Without access to healthy food our body, our organs functions may become impaired, resulting in renal failure, diabetes, or cardiac issues.”

“As a professional, [my patients and I] work together to unearth their relationship with food, to understand where on their list of priorities healthy foods lies and what barriers need to be overcome in order to access them,” she continues. “This moment acts as a tether, helping us understand that food is medicine and access to healthy food is a basic fundamental right.”

When asked what is the most rewarding aspect of her job, Schmidt replies it’s the ability to provide comfort to a patient and their loved ones. “Food is so much more than fuel, it is a way to comfort a loved one, a way to build relationships, to experience life, and so much more. There are so many constructs that affect one's ability to care for oneself. It is truly a gift to be able to equip patients with tools to take more power over their health.”