A Year of Helping Medical Students

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Last week, Kathryn and I had our final meeting with Andrew and Megan, two University of Michigan Medical School students assigned us as their volunteer family for the medical school’s Family Centered Experience (FCE) program. One of the goals of the FCE is to help students understand that a person’s illness isn’t confined to the hospital or doctor’s office; that the daily life of a person with a chronic medical condition more often than not consists of a constant navigation through, around, within, and with whatever condition that person has.

My wife and I met with Andrew and Megan only three times during this past academic year, for no more than a few hours each time, plus an hour-long visit to my endocrinologist. So, all told, maybe no more than 10 hours over the past eight months. And yet, as infrequently as we saw them, both my wife and I feel that we’ve made a pretty significant impact on how Andrew and Megan see people with chronic conditions. And let me try to clarify that last sentence: not how they think about someone with a chronic illness in a social context. These two medical students had no prejudices or bias against people with illness prior to our meeting with them—none that we could pick up on, anyway.

What I mean by “how they see people with chronic illness” is how these students, once they become doctors, will interact with their patients, how they’ll think of the patient and his or her condition. We hope that we’ve helped them see that the person is more than the disease. Maybe once they’ve got that degree in hand, they’ll dredge up from somewhere in their medical school education a memory of something one of us may have said, some bit of patient-perspective wisdom that stuck with them over the years.

Now, don’t assume that Kathryn and I have had positive impacts on these two lives simply because we’re amazing and could do nothing short of making a tremendous impact on whomever we encounter. (And by the way, feel free to laugh there.) No. It’s because of evidence that what we’ve talked about already resonates with them. For example, when Megan told us last week that she could hear Kathryn’s voice in the back of her head during class while a professor was discussing disease, and Megan started to think about it from a patient’s perspective because of something Kathryn had said last fall, or when Andrew tells us he’s committed to breaking bad news to his patients in the best way possible for the patient, we can see that this FCE program really works.

The culmination of this year in the FCE program will be an Interpretive Projects Presentation in mid-April. At this event we, the FCE volunteers, will get to see some of the multimedia presentations the students work on collaboratively to capture one aspect of their experience of illness learned during their time with FCE volunteers throughout the year. I saw one of these at the opening reception last August, and it was pretty amazing. I wish I had a link to it so I could share it with you—it was that moving.

After this spring reception, we’ll say goodbye to Andrew and Megan and wish them the best of luck throughout the next however-many years it’ll take them to become full-fledged doctors. Sure, I’ll ask them to keep in touch and hope they drop me an e-mail on occasion to let me know how their lives are going. And maybe for a while we will keep in touch.

We’ll be medical-student–free over the summer, until mid-August. Then we’ll attend the Family Centered Experience fall reception, wherein we’ll be introduced to a different pair of medical students (probably second-year students this time around) and begin the process again.

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