‘Ask what person the disease has’: Mount Sinai students highlight patients’ personal lives

photo by Tim Savage

all photos by Tim Savage

by Marie Oliva Hennelly with Tim Savage and Salina Bakshi
4th year medical students at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

To honor National Solidarity Day for Compassionate Patient Care on February 14th, 2014, medical students at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai spent one afternoon learning about patients’ personal lives in order to craft signs for display over their beds. Instead of the impersonal day-to-day business of managing a list of diseases, for one day, the hospital reconnected with the humans in our beds—our patients.

This year’s project idea was conceived by fourth year Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) inductee Marie Oliva Hennelly and carried out with co-leaders Tim Savage and Salina Bakshi. The poem Do Not Resuscitate by Brenda Butka, MD was a source of inspiration for the project.  In the poem the physician narrator struggles with a difficult end-of-life conversation with a patient’s child, ultimately only able to request, “So. Tell me. /Tell me again. /Tell me about your father.”

After a single year on the wards, we have already tasted instances in which modern medicine has been powerless to return a loved one to the person they were before disease and treatment stripped them of strength to sit up or energy to smile. We have also experienced the motivation that lasts through the day when we know what our young asthma patient is looking forward to after discharge, or when we meet the family of our ICU patient who still hasn’t woken up—when we know who we’re fighting for.

To facilitate this connection between patients and their care teams, 26 first- through fourth-year medical students volunteered on five teaching units at Mount Sinai Hospital, conducting brief interviews to learn about patients’ lives, asking:

  • How would your friends describe you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What has been the most meaningful experience in your life?

Based on those conversations, students and patients decided together on 2-3 short phrases that the patient would like others at the hospital to know about his or her life. The phrases were written on signs and hung over patients’ beds. As a result, everybody who entered the room – from residents, attendings, and nurses to food service, other support staff, and visitors – would see the human in the bed and interact with them as such.

Some of the things patients shared on their signs were:

  • Dostoevsky scholar of 58+ years.
  • Biggest NY Yankee fan in the tri-state area.
  • Her husband cooks, she supervises. (He’s 82.)
  • Trying to convince his lovely wife of almost 20 years to get a small dog that doesn’t shed.

IMG_6636The project was well received by patients, students, and staff alike. Patients lit up when asked about their personal lives and opened up to the students in a short amount of time. One patient expressed gratitude for his inclusion in the project, explaining that he had never been asked questions like that before.

As is often true with service projects, those carrying them out are frequently the most affected. Some student volunteers were surprised by unexpected commonalities they shared with patients; others were humbled by their patients’ resilience. Most striking for many was the depth of connection they reached with patients over the short encounter, and how interesting their patients were once they asked.

  • “I may have enjoyed the conversations even more than they did. What a great reminder of how amazing, strong, talented, diverse, and interesting the patients we take care of every day actually are.”
  • “Everyone has a story, if you give them the chance to tell it.”
  • “We had a three-year-old girl pretend to be a penguin for 45 seconds before we realized what she was doing!”
  • “One patient jotted down my name to put on her list of people she prays for every day. She told me she would pray for me every day for the rest of her life.”

For our busy hospital teams, we hoped the small offer of humanity would allow them to reconnect with what makes their jobs so meaningful. In turn, we hoped the opportunity for our patients to share parts of their lives and more deeply engage with their care team would make their hospital stays more enjoyable and facilitate their healing. As one student volunteer reflected:

“It’s important to remember that our patients have a life outside of the hospital, because it’s easy, both for us and especially for them, to forget about it in the pain and discomfort of their illness. It’s just as important for us to remind them of their selves outside of the hospital room as it is to treat them, to remind them what they want to get better for.”

Or, as Dr. William Osler once advised, “Ask not what disease the person has, ask what person the disease has.”


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