December 17, 2003
Caregiver Companion program gives med students real-life lessons
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - After attending classes at Purdue University from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day, followed by six hours of studying, first-year medical student Julie Waddle looks forward to every other Friday night when she fulfills another course requirement.
Waddle visits Jessie Swarens, 81, a chronically ill, bed-bound lady who is cared for by her daughter and son-in-law in their Lafayette, Ind., home. The visits, arranged through the Caregiver Companion program, are a requirement of Introduction to Clinical Medicine-1 at the IU Medical School's Lafayette Center for Medical Education.
The class, taught by Purdue University Student Health Center physician Janet Hortin, emphasizes the importance of doctors developing respectful relationships with their patients so they can treat patients holistically.
"Medicine should be based on support for the patient," Hortin says. "I think we get away from that notion sometimes. To engage students in service-learning is ethically and philosophically important."
Service-learning features curricula that incorporate community involvement and service. It reflects a renewed university effort to elevate Purdue's role as a responsive "citizen." Mindful of its primary charge to educate students, the university approaches its citizenship by challenging students to solve problems in ways that help them learn and expand their thinking about their lifelong duties as citizens.
While this particular service-learning class calls for biweekly visits to approximately eight patients in Tippecanoe County, Waddle and her 16 classmates also are required to keep a journal, e-mail reports on the visits and write a paper. Another assignment features a presentation on respite care, in which people who care for loved ones in their homes are provided a break.
In class, students read articles about long-term care providers and share their experiences. The Purdue School of Pharmacy offers a similar service-learning class through which 17 additional students visit chronically ill people in their homes through the Caregiver Companion program.
Waddle says she enjoys visiting Swarens, who is paralyzed from a 1981 stroke and has been battling heart disease and diabetes.
"It's a wonderful program," Waddle says. "Without this class, I wouldnt do something like this, given our crazy schedules. I can forget about studying for a night and not be distracted and worried about tests. It's good for the soul."
Waddle says she agrees that the class is a worthy component of the first-year curriculum.
"They want us to think of patients as people and not as bed numbers and conditions," Waddle says. "Medical schools are doing a better job of developing people who will be good doctors instead of just scientists with good grades."
Before matching patients with a medical student, Hortin administers a personality profile questionnaire to ensure the match will be successful.
Swarens' daughter, Brenda Linquist, says Waddle and the other medical students who have visited her mother quickly fostered caring relationships.
"I've noticed a whole new breed of medical people," Linquist says. "They have a whole new attitude. We've even had a few male students with whom mom would just giggle. They were as sweet as could be."
Linquist says the students quickly learn to how to interact with the elderly.
"A lot of the general public will talk down to her like she's a child," Linquist says.
While most of the chronically ill persons with whom students visit are elderly, there have been a few younger patients.
"One of our patients was a 10-year old who recently received a liver-kidney transplant at Riley," Hortin says. "The students that visited him during their first year were able to follow up during his hospitalization for the transplant this year. I think his mom and he were happy to see those familiar faces in a time of high anxiety. It warms my heart to see the level of continuity and caring that my students exhibit in their work."
Despite their age disparity, Waddle, who came to Purdue from Wheatfield, Ind., says that she and Swarens quickly discovered things they shared in common, like growing up on farms. Waddle admits that while she enjoys reminiscing with Swarens, she was apprehensive at first.
"My grandmother, who lived with us for a number of years, suffered from severe dementia," Waddle says. "This has been an eye-opening experience for me. It's nice to spend time with Jessie. Her smile lights up the whole room."
Because communication with Swarens is limited due to brain damage from the stroke, Waddle and Swarens often watch movies together or look at pictures. Linquist says this provides her mother with much needed socialization without the need to carry on a lengthy conversation.
"It's frustrating for her and us both," Linquist says. "The main communication is about necessities. I would love to see her talk and say what she's thinking. The movies are something she can share without the frustration."
Hortin says for some physicians, spending quality time with a patient is an acquired skill.
"Our wholehearted presence and compassionate listening may be the most important gift that we have to offer the chronically or terminally ill patient," Hortin says. "The Band-Aid approach doesn't work with chronic illness. You're working with a family to help them cope."
The Caregiver Companion program also offers Linquist a break from the duties of caring for her mother.
"It's been wonderful." she says. "I'm thrilled to death. My husband and I are newlyweds. It has allowed us some one on one time so we can be husband and wife. They're reliable and have their act together. There's not one student who has been here who hasn't impressed me. It's been a godsend."
Hortin says the program also offers a tangible educational benefit to medical students like Waddle.
"The patient is the teacher," Hortin says. "We should be thankful for their help and cooperation."
Hortin says she also participates in the Caregiver Companion program so she can share her experiences with the students and contribute to the community.
"Service-learning has changed my life," Hortin says. "I love doing this. It fits so well with medicine."
The Caregiver Companion program welcomes inquiries from all prospective volunteers, not just medical or pharmacy students. For more information, contact program directors Helen Klemme or Marilyn McTague at (765) 423-1879.
Writer: Marydell Forbes, (765) 496-7704, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Janet Hortin ((765) 494-1700, email@example.com
Julie Waddle, (219) 628-2821, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brenda Linquist, (765) 448-6455, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org