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UTA BSPH Graduate Katherine Barrow Works to Improve Healthcare Access and Services for People With Disabilities

Katherine Barrow has spent her career caring and advocating for others. Her life’s work, however, is creating a better healthcare system for people with disabilities and their families.UTA BSPH graduate Katherine Barrow

Her older brother, Andrew, has Lowe Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that impacts the eyes, brain, and kidneys. It’s caused by a mutation in the OCRL1 gene and can result in a range of medical issues related to those organs, as well as physical, cognitive and development disabilities. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the condition affects only one in 500,000 people.

“I’ve always been involved in healthcare because of Andrew,” Barrow said, noting that she has also been part of his caregiving team, along with their parents. After graduating from high school in her hometown of Aledo, Texas, she even studied biochemistry and genetics at Texas A&M University for a few years before taking a different path.

Barrow worked with older adults as a caregiver, case manager and Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) prior to joining Texas Health Resources in Fort Worth in 2015, where she served as a care technician assisting hospital patients with activities of daily living. She enjoyed the job, which involved coordinating care with nurses and being a consistent point of contact for family members.

“It was a very fulfilling career,” Barrow recalled, though she also had other ambitions. “I wanted to make a difference on a bigger scale than just an individual at a time,” she said.

She considered ways to help people before they ended up in the hospital, through education and community outreach. “Heart disease, stroke risk, so many things we don’t have absolute control over, but we do have some impact on,” she said. “If we could mitigate some of the risk factors, we could make a difference.” Barrow was also familiar with the challenges that people with disabilities commonly face in accessing healthcare and support services, whether due to insurance, bureaucracy, communication issues or other obstacles.

In 2019, she enrolled in the online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at The University of Texas at Arlington to get a solid foundation in public health and explore her options. She also needed skills that could help her pursue a long-term goal: starting a nonprofit organization to help families like hers.

“Everything in our country involves, in some way, shape or form, public health,” she said. “From police departments and mental health issues to a pandemic and epidemiology, and contact tracing to accommodations for people with disabilities.”

Barrow graduated in 2023. She believes the career development activities built into many BSPH courses were essential to her success. “It’s [helpful] to see what you want to do—what steps you need to take, where are the gaps—so that you can figure out how to fill them,” she said. “That’s something that I hadn’t found in other programs.”

Learning Her Way

Barrow continued working full time while earning her BSPH, and says the program paired well with her rotating night-shift schedule at the hospital. “The fact that it was completely online was a major selling point for me,” she noted, since some weeks she worked Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, others she was on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. “It could be anywhere on the map,” she said.

Learning online also suited her for another important reason: “I am an introvert,” she shared.

For Barrow, the term means more than just being shy, or hesitant to speak in class. When she began the program, she was most comfortable studying on her own and limiting her interactions with other students. She says her online experience at UTA helped her balance private time with a communal learning experience that she ended up enjoying. “The program worked really well with my introversion,” she confirmed.

“Life is a group project,” Barrow advised, pragmatically. “As much as we would love it to be otherwise, particularly us introverts, in the real world we have to interact with other people. There’s just no way around it. And the best you can hope for is a good group along the way.”

She found that good group in her online BSPH classmates. Their welcoming attitude toward her made a lasting impression. “There was a pretty wide array of students, and I actually have a few that I still talk with on a regular basis,” she revealed. “You can make friends in an online-only program.”

Professors were supportive as well, giving Barrow the space she desired while letting her know they were only a text, email or call away. When she received some devastating health news, the grace they showed her also helped her cope. “I was actually diagnosed with cancer during my degree,” she said, “and that was intense.”

Barrow had endometrial adenocarcinoma. It was a surprising discovery. “Initially, I was told I was too young for it,” she confided. “I really wish the doc would have told that to the cancer.”

She decided that the diagnosis didn’t have to derail her progress, and the UTA faculty agreed. “My professors were amazing,” she said, explaining how they extended deadlines as needed and allowed her to complete some group projects on her own.

“I was so ‘overpeopled’ having to advocate for myself with insurance companies and deal with the referral process, find an in-network oncologist, and later a hospital that was in network,” she remembered.

The faculty’s kindness and understanding ultimately helped her stay on track. “I was able to continue to go to school and finish my degree, despite navigating all of that,” she said, “because the professors are [incredibly] awesome and were able to work with me.”

Empowering Patients, Families and Communities

Since graduating from UTA, Barrow has started a master’s program in public service and administration at Texas A&M. This time she’s attending classes in person. She credits the online BSPH program with helping her adapt to a different learning environment.

“Being able to work online and not have to face people day in and day out while I achieved something was absolutely critical to being able to transition to an in-person program,” she said.

Barrow has also been named a Bush Board Fellow for the American Red Cross. She values the opportunity to learn nonprofit governance from one of the nation’s largest public health organizations. As a nonvoting board member, she contributes ideas, supports Red Cross events and organizes her own projects.

Now that Andrew is in his early forties, Barrow’s personal advocacy work is taking on a new urgency as well. Like many families of adults with disabilities, hers is working on succession planning for his future. She wants to help others in their position work through the practical and systemic hurdles associated with transitioning care and guardianship to a sibling when parents pass on.

“That’s already a stressful and confusing enough time for siblings as they’re navigating the loss of a caregiver and parent and exploring what it means to be ultimately responsible for [a] sib’s care,” she observed.

This has become more of a focus area for her nonprofit too, now that she’s actively working with colleagues from her master’s program to get the organization going. She wants to create a holistic, tech-enabled program model that helps people with disabilities get the support they need, while also “advocating for a more transparent and user-friendly system for accessing [services],” she said.

Barrow hopes to file for the organization’s initial IRS 501(c)(3) determination before she graduates, bringing an idea she first had as a teenager over twenty years ago full circle. “It has changed some, partly because technology has changed,” she acknowledged, “but also because I have.”

She says earning a BSPH gave her the incentive she needed to take the next step in her education and achieve her goals. “Having my bachelor’s degree was an immediate bolster to my confidence,” she said, highlighting her work with UTA faculty and students and the impact it continues to have in her life.

“I would not trade the online-only BSPH program for everything in the world,” she said. “That was so instrumental in allowing me to get to this point.”

As Barrow carries her public health research, education and advocacy skills into the next phase of her career, she’s excited about giving that knowledge to others, and making life better for people with disabilities as a result. “Public health is a massive field,” she said. “But everything’s connected. Whether it’s funding sources or ideas, there is something to be learned and shared everywhere.”

Learn more about the online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at The University of Texas at Arlington.

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