When the patient is the teacher, the lesson is compassion

Matthew Chapman was nervous – even scared – when he thought about meeting his first patient face-to-face.

The first-year Penn State College of Medicine student soon found out he had nothing to fear.

“After going for the first time with my partner, I loved it,” said Chapman, who is part of the College of Medicine’s Patients as Teachers Project that pairs first-year students with established patients for one-on-one mentoring. “I think this will help give another perspective on what our patients have to deal with, besides just following medical advice.”

Patients as Teachers
Chapman and fellow first-year student Yuriy Pechenyy have been paired all school year with Maria English, a Hershey resident who has lasting effects from battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“We meet at her home, where we talk about her life experiences and how her disease altered her life, as well as how her outlook on life has been altered,” said Pechenyy. “It’s rare that first-year medical students are able to have this kind of contact with patients.”

English, who has partnered with medical students since the program began more than 10 years ago, views her greatest lesson as fostering aspiring doctors’ communication connection.

“One-on-one is much better than sticking your nose in a book,” she said. “I tell all the medical students, ‘Listen to your patients because your patients know their body better than you do. And don’t ever think you’re God. There are things you’ll get wrong, but hopefully you’ll do a lot right.”

English doesn’t hold back on the gritty details of almost losing her life to cancer and what it’s like to live with it for years. “I tell them everything – probably more than they want to know,” she said with a chuckle.

For Chapman, it’s a lesson well learned. “I’m better able to understand the impact an illness has on someone’s life, more than just what we see at the hospital,” he said.

“Long ago, when doctors made house calls, they were much more aware of the global picture of a patient’s home and family,” said Dr. Martha Levine, associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and humanities at the College of Medicine and director of the Patients as Teachers Project. “We’re trying to draw on those roots and bring some of that back.”

The program was started as part of a first-year medical humanities course to help students think about loss, death and dying and disabilities. Students meet with their patients throughout the year and design videos or other creative projects to capture their relationship. The culmination of the program is a student-led dinner, where the genuine relationships and goodwill among the pairs is clearly evident.

“I don’t know of another medical school that offers this type of year-long relationship,” Levine said. “Many times, the students stay connected with their patient throughout medical school, and many patients stay in the program for years. They really enjoy working with our students and knowing that they are making a difference in their training.”

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