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UMass Medical School Sidekicks get support from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation sidekicks

Promise Circle awards $10,000 grant to program that pairs medical students with seriously ill children

Posted February 2014

The UMass Medical School (UMMS) Sidekicks program, which helps medical students to build relationships with pediatric patients that prepare them to become better, more empathic physicians, received a $10,000 grant in October 2013 from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is to fund organizations providing the best in pediatric cancer research, treatment and patient support programs. The grant was awarded through the Foundation’s competitive grant program the Promise Circle, which is committed to funding family support programs that improve patient’s quality of life during treatment.

The Sidekicks program matches medical students with patients receiving care at the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. By pairing a pediatric patient with a student, usually in his or her first year, Sidekicks creates an opportunity to build a supportive relationship outside the usual family or medical setting. It also creates opportunities for students to learn from situations they are not necessarily exposed to in the classroom and to build relationships with these children that will prepare them to become better, more empathic physicians. (See video below.)

For example, Shaun Dean, MD ’12, said one of the most important things he came to understand through his young companion is the toll a child’s illness takes on the family. He realized something that might otherwise have taken him years of practice to learn: while your day as a physician may fly by, filled with numerous patients, tests and meetings, the family is waiting just to hear from you.

“I saw how hard it was for the family . . . the travel and gas expenses; trying to find a wheelchair and a parking space,” he said. “And the waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.”

As the medical students are experiencing both the joys and the heartaches of building relationships with patients, they receive support from one another, from faculty advisers and from guest speakers at monthly Sidekicks meetings. These meetings create an environment for students to talk about their experiences and learn from their peers. They also have a chance to interact with guest speakers who range from social workers to parents who have lost children.

Continuity is an important part of the program. Students are required to commit to interacting with their buddies twice a month for at least a year and must attend monthly Sidekicks meetings. Started as a student interest group in 2009, the program became an official part of the School of Medicine curriculum as an Optional Enrichment Elective in 2012 following a comprehensive review process. According to Naheed Usmani, MD, co-founder and faculty adviser for Sidekicks, the program has more than doubled in size to 67 pairs of students and children this year.

A leader in the sport of racing, Jeff Gordon is a four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, has three Daytona 500 wins and four Brickyard 400 wins, among others. He began supporting charitable organizations early in his career, yet it was the diagnosis of his crew chief’s son in 1992 that inspired Gordon to establish his foundation in hopes of helping children facing critical illness to realize their dreams. What began as a small project driven by one special child has grown into an organization that has raised more than $13 million for children’s charities.