UMMS Sidekicks program a model for NYU

Medical students learn empathy through long term relationships with seriously ill children

By Ellie Castano and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

December 23, 2013

When the New York University School of Medicine decided to teach the personal side of medicine to aspiring doctors by pairing them with chronically ill children, they looked to UMass Medical School and its rapidly growing Sidekicks program.

“They contacted us last summer for advice on developing a similar program,” said Naheed Usmani, MD, co-founder and faculty adviser for UMMS’s Sidekicks, which has more than doubled in size to 67 pairs of students and children this year. “Faculty members and the four student leaders went to NYU in October to meet with the medical students who wanted to start a program.”

The UMMS delegation gave a presentation that highlighted the rigorousness of the Sidekicks program, emphasizing the academic elements that distinguish this program from similar ones at other medical schools. Students are not simply volunteering to spend time with sick children, but committing to build relationships that prepare them to become better, more empathic physicians.

For example, Shaun Dean, MD (SOM ’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.”

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.

“I plan to continue as a Sidekick in my third and fourth years,” said Justin Pespisa, SOM ’16, who is one of this year’s Sidekicks student leaders. The others are Emily Suther, Emily Coggins and Melanie Marie Dubois, also second year medical students.

In January, NYU will launch its own Sidekicks program, having decided to keep “the footprint” of the UMMS Sidekicks program according to Dr. Usmani, who is clinical associate professor of pediatrics and a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. Sidekicks NYC will start small, pairing 10 to 15 students with pediatric patients from the community. Like its UMMS namesake, Sidekicks NYC will have a comprehensive application process that will evaluate interested medical students’ commitment and suitability to serve in this unique role.

Sidekicks is the brainchild of Usmani, Dr. Dean and Joel Bradley, MD (SOM ’12), who met when Usmani lectured in the medical school course Caring for the Critically Ill in 2009. The program matches UMMS medical students, usually in their first year, with patients receiving care at the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center. The program creates an opportunity for the pediatric patient and the student 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. Usmani serves as the program’s faculty advisor and coordinates the matches between students and patients.

Tricia Campero, whose son Christian receives treatment for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at UMass Memorial, credits her son’s Sidekick, Walter Palmer, SOM ’16, with changing the way her son feels about going to the hospital.

“Christian was always scared to come here, but that’s changed,” Campero said. “Now he sees it as an opportunity to spend time with Walter. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Walter shows up when we let him know that Christian will be here. It has been an amazing pairing.”

Campero also sees the impact the Sidekicks relationship has on Palmer’s medical education.

“Walter gets to see how we as the family of a sick child respond to news about Christian and how we interact with different members of the care team,” she said.

Third-year medical student Karen Tenner was paired with a young girl who sadly did not survive her illness. Tenner said she feels privileged to have been involved in her buddy’s life at the end and to have learned firsthand about one of the most difficult aspects of medicine.

“Nowhere else in the curriculum is there this kind of longevity,” said Tenner, adding that she was also privileged to learn from the experiences of the family.

As the medical students are experiencing both the joys and the heartaches of building relationships with patients, they receive support from one another, from Usmani and her team, and from guest speakers at the monthly Sidekicks meetings. The 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.

Related story on UMassMedNow:
Boston Globe: Sidekicks pairs medical students with sick kids