Learning the 'care' of health care

By Deb Wiley

Gingerly, Britton Walker Zuccarelli ’07 gripped the retractors that hold skin flaps out of the way of the surgeon performing a total knee replacement.

“In the stagnant air and 85-degree temperature of the operating room, I found myself sweating through my scrubs and struggling not to use my sterile, gloved hands to wipe my brow,” she said. “I was stunned to have even been allowed into the operating room.”

It was April of 2006 in Managua, Nicaragua. She was a Cornell College junior.

“Getting to scrub in to observe orthopedic surgery doesn’t normally happen until your third year of medicalschool,” said Zuccarelli, now a second-year, full-scholarship medical student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Getting up close with surgery is one of the more dramatic opportunities provided by an innovative, fouryear- old Cornell academic program called Dimensions: The Center for the Science and Culture of Healthcare.

Conceived collaboratively and funded by Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Dorr ’63, Dimensions is not simply about good science education. It’s about students learning the “care” of health care.

“In my field I could see the dominance of the science of medicine and the diminution of the art of medicine,” said Dorr, a world leader in hip and joint replacement surgery and research and a Cornell College trustee. Having superior medical skills is not enough, he added.

“Compassion in medicine is the most important characteristic a doctor can have. People respond better when you treat them better.”

As Cornell leaders and faculty became excited about using the liberal arts to bolster science education, the program launched with the understanding that students interested in health care would learn not just traditional subjects such as biology and chemistry, but empathy, communication, creativity, and teamwork. Students would learn “the science and culture” of health care.

But Dimensions is so much more than just course work. Students discuss health care topics in a reading group, listen to guest speakers, receive medical school admissions test training, attend workshops and seminars, and apply for a wide range of on- and off-campus research projects and internships. In 2008 Dimensions funded summer research for 20 students, investing $50,000 in faculty-student research on campus and an additional $15,000 for students doing research off-campus. Dimensions also financially supports five to 10 students a year who travel to professional conferences with their faculty mentors.

To aid the 75 to 80 students a year who arrive at Cornell with a goal of entering a health science field (encompassing pharmacy, dentistry, research, physical therapy, and veterinary medicine, among others), Cornell provides individual guidance and support. Program coordinator Bobbi Buckner Bentz ’01, serves as part den mother, part cheerleader, and part border collie, rounding up her charges to find the opportunities that best fit their goals.

“In my mind, Bobbi is the Dimensions program,” said senior See-yin So. “She’s always a go-to person.”

Barbara Christie-Pope, Dimensions faculty director and professor of biology, agrees. “Bobbi ferrets out these students,” Christie-Pope said. “It’s pretty hard for a student to get lost. She’s there with a constant reminder. She knows every one of these students who wants to go into a health care field, and she’s pretty hard to avoid.”

Under Bentz and Christie-Pope’s direction, the program immediately reached out to other disciplines.

“Faculty outside of the sciences can use Dimensions as a resource,” Christie-Pope said. For example, the program paid for a field trip to St. Louis to see “Body Worlds,” an exhibit of human bodies, as part of two courses—one an advanced sociology course titled Sociology of the Body, and the other an advanced anatomy and physiology course.

“My students saw it as a depiction of anatomy,” Christie- Pope said. “But the sociology students saw it as making a comment about the human body, wondering why a body was posed in a certain way. There was a wonderful discussion on the bus driving home.”

Two Dimensions-funded courses—Medical Anthropology and Comparative Healthcare Systems—have already become part of the curriculum.

“Dimensions changed my life,” said Amanda Jepson, a senior from Wayland, Iowa. “When I came to Cornell, I wasn’t considering the health care field. I was thinking of education or economics. But it never felt right. I’d say it, but never quite believe it. Now when I say I want to go to medical school and become a physician, I believe it.”

The multi-faceted approach of the program allows for a personalized student experience.

“Dimensions drew me to Cornell,” So said. “I was interested in forensic pathology, and the other colleges didn’t know what to do with me. When I talked to Cornell College, they sent me straight to Bobbi.”

Bentz worked with Jason Kolowski ’98 of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office on So’s internship there last summer. “I was actually working on molecular genetics, dealing with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and specific mutations of genes, and forensic cell pathology,” So said. “I went into the morgue and got to see autopsies.”

The internship solidified So’s career goals. “I had wondered whether this was really what I wanted to do, but I saw how everything worked together: the lab, the criminologists, the detectives in court. It’s real!” So said. “I love the real world. I know I wouldn’t have had this input anywhere else.”

Bentz helped place junior Adam Norton in the Cornell Fellows Program to conduct research at Gunderson Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis. His work, combing medical records to measure end-of-life health care directives, is part of a research paper submitted for publication. “I’m not sure if research is really my area, but the things I learned about ethics and humanities really changed me as a person,” Norton said.

In reviewing death records, Norton realized how physicians can develop a relationship with a dying patient to honor their wishes. “We’re not just treating the disease—we’re treating the patient,” he said.


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