• Article
  • April 24, 2015

Medical Students Mentor Patients

A tutoring program pairs medical students with patients and helps build confidence, friendships and lifelong memories.

By Christine Bush

Eight-year-old Connor tackles homework with the help of PedsPals Joe DeMari and Gabby Izzo.

Eight-year-old Connor struggles with memory issues as a result of chemo treatments he had more than three years ago. His family works with him and his school to accommodate his needs, but as Connor’s mom Tracy describes, watching her son’s frustration with homework crushes her heart. It’s these types of experiences that inspired Kristi Griffin, education specialist at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital (Upstate) in Syracuse, N.Y., to create the PedsPals mentoring program.

Before Griffin started PedsPals, the hospital’s tutoring team consisted of volunteer retired teachers and Syracuse University undergraduate students. By all accounts, the program was going well. Griffin however, wanted more for the patients. “We were limited to tutoring on site at the hospital,” she says. “I wanted to include a mentoring piece to fill a gap. Many of the children we see don’t have an opportunity to do fun or cultural activities with a buddy. But, no matter how I tried to figure it out, I didn’t see a way to make a mentoring program work.”

A roadblock Griffin faced was that her staff consisted of volunteers. Only people officially associated with Upstate, medical students or employees, for example, could work with patients outside the hospital. However, Griffin found an alternative when a medical student at Upstate approached her with his own ideas for a mentoring program. As a student, he was officially associated with Upstate and the children’s hospital. Griffin’s vision and the ambition of the student combined to create PedsPals.

A growing program

PedsPals got off the ground in fall 2013. Each patient is teamed up with two medical students, one in the first year of studies and the other in the second year. Griffin designed it so the first-year students can spend more time with their Pal when the second-year students need to dedicate time studying for board exams. The medical students are asked to commit to PedsPals for two years so the patient will not have two new Pals at one time. Griffin says the buddy system allows for a more flexible schedule and most likely one of the medical students can find time each week to meet. When the PedsPals meet outside of the hospital, the program requires that both medical students attend, but meetings at the hospital only require one Pal.

At first, only five children were in the program. Now PedsPals help twice as many kids. Griffin says location can make participation a problem for some patients because they live an hour or two from the hospital. While this can make it difficult to take part, it’s not impossible. Two families drive 45 minutes to an hour to make meetings possible.

In the program’s second year, Griffin says she had so many interested medical students, she created a selection process to narrow down the field. Medical students filled out applications, and from there Griffin’s team chose 30 to interview and selected 21 for participation. In September 2014, Griffin paired Connor with first-year student Gabby Izzo and second-year student Joe DeMari. Tracy says it was important to explain to Connor that while his PedsPals mentors were studying to be doctors, they were not there to medically treat him or run tests. “Connor was usually anxious,” Tracy says. “He knew Joe and Gabby were there to be his friends, so when we first met he wasn’t nervous.” It didn’t take long for the three to become friends and work out a routine. Joe and Gabby meet with Connor at least once a week.

Many visits are spent at the library going over school work, but there’s more to it. DeMari and Izzo make it a point to spend time having fun as well as teaching. “It’s important Connor knows we’re his friends first and mentors second,” Izzo says. “We are people who aren’t in his family who give him encouragement and attention. We know he gets frustrated with school work, and we’re doing the best we can to enforce that we know he’s doing a great job.”

DeMari and Izzo make sure that no visit goes by without fun time. Some outings involve a stop at an ice cream shop, a museum visit or making a snowman. Connor’s PedsPals also slip in learning during the fun stops. “Sometimes Connor is down and he says he’s sick of school,” Izzo says. “We try to encourage by example, so a few weeks ago we decided to make ice cream with him. We used it as a science experiment.”

Building relationships

As part of the program, PedsPals go to the patient’s school to meet with the teacher and prepare a plan. From there, they communicate regularly with the teacher. In Connor’s case, his PedsPals used their time with him to find out how he’s learning. When they started meeting, Connor struggled with spelling and expressed frustration. Izzo and DeMari talked to his teacher to try to find a way to cater to Connor’s needs. “It’s not that Connor can’t spell, it’s that he can’t retain a lot of words at once,” DeMari says. “The teacher reduced his spelling list from 10 words to five. Now he’s doing better on the tests and that boosts his confidence.”

So far, the program is working out as Griffin envisioned. The medical students are benefiting from the relationship, as well as the patients, and even though the medical students have busy schedules, they manage as a team to spend time with their Pal. “Joe and I figured out that Friday was our best time.” Izzo says. “Many times I think that a nap would be wonderful. But spending time with Connor is just great, and I really like doing it.” DeMari agrees. “Being with Connor gives us a chance to get away from the books,” he says. “Spending time with him is the highlight of my week because we see how much Connor is enjoying our visits.”

Connor’s mom credits the PedsPals program with his improvement in spelling and confidence in other subjects. Tracy says he’s participating more in school and doesn’t worry as much about getting the answer right when he raises his hand. “The PedsPals program came in the nick of time,” Tracy says. “His anxiety has gotten better. Joe and Gabby give him different techniques to try when learning. And I think hearing it from someone else rather than hearing it from us eases his mind. He’s so excited when he’s able to tell them that he got a 90 on a test—to see him light up like that is priceless.”

Making a difference

There’s no hard deadline to when a patient transitions out of the PedsPals program. As long as there is a need, Griffin says she will continue to pair Pals with the patient. Both DeMari and Izzo say they are getting benefits out of the program too. “Any experience you can get, and the sooner you have it with people, makes you better every day,” DeMari says. “In the first and second year of medical school you don’t get a lot of contact with a patient. Being a physician comes down to caring for people, and we’re mentoring Connor to help him be all he can be. In return, we’re getting training that will benefit us the rest of our lives.”

Griffin says she’s pleased with the progress PedsPals has made for both patients and medical students. “It’s a group of young adults who are beyond belief,” she says. “Not only are they smart, they are committed to these kids. To see the expressions on the kids’ faces when they see their Pals, it puts a lump in my throat. The program is making a difference.” 

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.