Photo of Abigail Sweeney

Abigail Sweeney

  • Hosted by Georgetown University Health Justice Alliance
  • Sponsored by Pfizer Inc.
  • Service location Washington, District of Columbia
  • Law school Georgetown University Law Center
  • Issue area Health Care, Medical-Legal Partnership
  • Fellowship class year 2021
  • Program Design-Your-Own Fellowship

The Project

Through the Georgetown University Health Justice Alliance, Abby (she/her/hers) increases vulnerable cancer patients’ access to free healthcare and estate planning documents by providing low-barrier direct services and integrating pro-bono student volunteers into the Cancer Legal Assistance and Well-Being (LAW) Project.

Cancer diagnoses generally highlight the importance of planning for life’s inevitable heartaches—of having answers to the questions confronting individuals facing debilitating medical treatments or approaching the end of their lives. In Washington, D.C., not all patients have a chance to make these plans with dignity.

Abby’s project seeks to address the racial health injustice in Washington, D.C. that manifests not only as disparities in disease incidence and outcomes, but also in advance planning. Black patients are less likely to have healthcare planning documents providing end-of-life quality indicators, which results in patients not having end-of-life wishes followed. Additionally, white families are five times more likely to inherit than  are Black families, reflecting the cumulative effects of living within systems of pervasive racial inequality. Healthcare providers know that future planning legal services can protect the health and well-being of patients and their families, meaning more equitable health outcomes. Up until now, providers could not write a “legal prescription” for patients’ future planning needs. Abby’s project works to fill a void in the healthcare system while also training law student volunteers to scale the project.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Abby has:

  • Hosted monthly “Advanced Planning Café Conversations” where cancer patients could begin the process of completing healthcare legal planning documents in a relaxed and comfortable setting
  • Recruited and trained law student volunteers to provide pro bono Advanced Planning legal services
  • Worked within the academic medical-legal partnership model to mentor undergraduate students interested in health justice and design curricular materials for training medical students how to advocate for their future patients
  • Provided full representation to over 30 clients, including successfully representing patients in securing disability benefits to increase their income and quality of life as they live with late-stage cancer
  • Successfully represented patients in housing conditions cases to improve the habitability of their homes (e.g., elimination of mold and leaks)

Next Steps

In the next year, Abby plans to:

  • Integrate more pro bono and student volunteers into the Advanced Planning project
  • Further collaborate with provider and nursing teams to model why everyone benefits from having these Advanced Planning documents in place and how best to approach the discussion with patients

Even with a terminal cancer diagnosis, my Nana dedicated her final months to helping me as a first-year teacher, volunteering in my classroom and later grading student worksheets when she became too sick. Nana’s choice to live her life as she wanted—in solidarity with her granddaughter—should not be a privilege afforded only to some.

Abigail Sweeney /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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