I’ve been speaking as a patient mentor to classes of health faculty students for the past year. Every few months, I commit to a half day of speaking to rotating groups of young folks who are embarking on careers in health – in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, rehabilitation medicine, dentistry, and nutrition. These are different audiences than my typical conference attendees, who are seasoned health professionals. Some students are very young – just out of high school – and they remind me of my own older children – tentatively stepping their way in a confusing and competitive world.
I share our family story of sudden immersion into the world of disability after the birth of our youngest son. I recognize that I have an agenda when I present. There is one key message that I hold dear. I speak because I hope that maybe one student will remember my words when they are standing in front of a vulnerable patient. I hope they think to themselves that they remember what that mom said way back when they were in school, and remember she said:
Patients are people first. My son is has Down syndrome, yes. But he is always a little boy first. That’s how I see him, and if you see him as merely a bundle of deficits, we are going to have a very tough time communicating and forming trust that is the basis of a relationship. Please talk to Aaron directly, and not through me. He knows how old he is and what grade he is in. And if you have a hard time understanding him, I will jump in and interpret for you. Using his proper name, and not calling him ‘Buddy’ or another nickname is a demonstration of respect. And he’s never ever a ‘Downs boy’ (sic). He’s a boy with Down syndrome, with the same hopes and dreams as any other ten year old boy. He loves Minecraft, has a soft spot for hip-hop music, and has a deep interest in cars. I share these messages gently, through story-telling, and use humour to soften my words.
What I love about the students is that once you break the ice with them, they are fearless in their questions. They ask me about my marriage, Aaron’s siblings, his school experience, his recreational activities. They don’t think of health as being contained in a hospital because they have not yet been silo’ed into the ‘sickness’ based health world.
I think that the whole landscape of the patient experience in health care would totally shift if professionals would adopt a person-first philosophy. And what better place to explain this than to students just starting off in their practice, where they are open to ideas, and they are formulating their own philosophies. They have vast capacity for compassion and kindness. I believe there is great hope with these future health professionals, and they are very worthy of our attention and our time.
You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself. ―Galileo Galilei