The Medicine of Compassion
The Medicine of Compassion
a service-learning scholarship in the human side of health care
The medicine of compassion is something you don't learn about in college.
Even if you want to go into health care as a career, where do you go to learn how to make that human connection with someone who is seriously ill or injured? Who teaches you what to say to someone who is dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease? How do you learn to handle the emotions that come up around such intense human suffering?
We found a way to develop this ability and we need your help to pass it on. It's something the whole world needs.
“This program taught me how to console people when they are at their most vulnerable. In the Emergency Department, we only have a few seconds to develop rapport and earn the trust of our patients. Because of my experience with Adventures in Caring, I excel at this and have become known for my ability to put even the most agitated patients at ease.” —Kenyon Tsao, MD, Emergency Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester
This doesn’t happen by chance. It takes in-depth training, regular reflection, plus a year of practice and coaching to learn this subjective, personal, art of communicating with patients. It is the essential, yet often overlooked, counterpart to objective, impersonal, medical science.
Undergraduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara partner with the Adventures in Caring Foundation to develop these core skills by using them every week to counteract the social isolation of the frail elderly.
We have been lucky to be taught the methods of a master communicator, Karen Fox, who created this program. Karen grew up in Ethiopia, Iraq, Italy and the U.S. She spoke Italian, French, Aramaic, Arabic, and English. By age 12, Karen had already spoken with Emperor Haile Selassie, interacted with ambassadors, princes, and shamans, and brought comfort to lepers and the dying. Karen has suffered a lifetime of ill-health and injury, surviving cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. She knows full well what patients go through. So she had the gift of being able to connect with everyone, regardless of circumstances, culture, religion, language, age, ability or disability, wealth or poverty.
The beauty is that we can all learn this art. It opens up your life in ways you cannot imagine. Karen and the Adventures in Caring team have taught this art for thirty years to anyone who wanted to help the sick, injured, or dying—from elementary school children to trauma surgeons. These programs have won national and international awards, and are respected locally and globally.
Even so, this program doesn’t spontaneously self-organize. Without the small (three) dedicated staff at Adventures in Caring who produce, coordinate, and teach this unique program, it would not continue. Nor would it happen without the outstanding students who go far above and beyond the usual responsibilities of volunteering. These students are often struggling financially, working a job, and studying hard to achieve the grades needed to go to graduate school, all while reaching out to the most vulnerable in our community. No one does it just for class credits.
Every year, several times a week, our team of 90 students befriends hundreds of frail seniors in local nursing homes and hospital units.
If this sounds like heavy lifting emotionally—it is. In a person’s darkest hour at the frayed edges of life where there is no cure, we deliver the medicine of compassion. As a result, the doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals of tomorrow are developing the listening skills, emotional intelligence, and wholeheartedness necessary to embrace human suffering, reduce anxiety, and restore well-being—before going to graduate school.
To balance this emotional depth we add a lightness of being to our delivery. Thanks to the altruistic creativity of the program's founder, most of our team arrives dressed as the characters Raggedy Ann or Raggedy Andy. This is both practical and paradoxical.
Practically, the Raggedys are safe characters—they reduce the threat level of facing illness alone. The Raggedy paradox is that we use a make-believe character to get at what is most real and meaningful in life. People find it easier to speak about the things closest to the heart with an anonymous, humble, and friendly confidante who happens to be an excellent listener.
The really cool thing for students is that you become great friends with people four and five times your age. Who knew that old people could have such a radical sense of humor? Or how grateful they would be for a friend who will be with them at the end of life? It’s amazing to discover that even though people lose so much with age and illness, they never lose their emotions. Every student walks away from this program with a profound set of stories and a powerful set of skills. Every student is equipped with the capacity to connect with anyone—any age, any culture, any disability—for life.
Hear what the students have to say: http://www.adventuresincaring.org/video-showcase/#students
Paying It Forward
We who have had the privilege of being part of this program have been given life skills and experiences that are absolutely crucial to succeeding in a career in health care. Our goal is to pay it forward so that other students have this opportunity too.
This is a unique program. It is supported entirely by private gifts—there is no funding from the University or the government. It doesn’t continue unless we all pitch in. We hope you will join us in making it happen.
Your support will:
- Build lifelong emotional intelligence, listening skills, and the capacity to sustain compassion in future health professionals.
- Counteract social isolation and ostracism of the frail elderly.
- Connect two generations with one win-win program.
What Alumni Say
“I learned how to approach a patient, have an open conversation, care for someone who is suffering and/or dying, interact with a patient’s family, and how to care for myself. I will never forget the first time in my general surgery residency that I had to tell a family that their loved one died traumatically. I will never forget the words I used, how I was shaking inside, the look on their faces, or the sound of their cries. Since that night, I’ve told countless others that their loved one has passed, or likely won’t survive the evening. And while it gets easier choosing my words and I don’t shake anymore, it still stays with me. What I fall back on when I feel like I don’t know what to say or do are the principles I learned as a Raggedy.”
—Charity Evans, MD, MHCM., FACS. Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery
University of Nebraska Medical Center
“The importance of understanding the patient’s perspective that I learned in the AiC training and in my experience visiting patients as Raggedy Andy has allowed me to be a better physician and to realize how fortunate I am to have meaningful interactions with patients.”
—Scott Montgomery, MD, Orthopaedic Surgery Resident, UCLA Medical Center
“Being a Raggedy has taught me a life skill that has penetrated all areas of my life. I experience emotion more honestly, listen more intently, and communicate more clearly. I am a better friend, daughter, sister, and certainly a better provider because of my experience with Adventures in Caring.”
—Monica Garty, CNP, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at Harbor UCLA Medical Center
“Practicing compassion with the Adventures in Caring program has been the greatest gift. When treating patients from diverse backgrounds I see how compassion helps bridge cultural differences. Having the Raggedy experience was priceless.”
—Catherine Anderson, CNP, Columbia University School of Nursing
“Adventures in Caring gave me the tools I needed to become a physician who can provide the extra empathy that is so often missing in medicine today.”
—Deborah Fein, MD, Psychiatry, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
Expressing compassion, the ability to listen, and learning the right words to say in moments of extreme emotion are the most valuable skills that you can gain as a Raggedy and use as a medical student. There is a definite difference between those who have experience spending time and listening to patients and those who do not.”
—Brittany Dixon, Emergency Medicine, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine
“Being a Raggedy volunteer for two years was an invaluable experience in preparing me for clinical encounters. Patients sense that I really care about their problems and suffering, and often thank me for my attention and respect. The communication skills I learned have already helped me negotiate many awkward questions about health habits, and to transform the physical exam into a learning experience for patient and practitioner alike, rather than something dehumanizing.”
—Karl Russ, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine