Bringing society into medicine

Tutors: As part of a Hopkins program, a group of medical students helps neighborhood kids with their schoolwork.

May 28, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

There is a world of difference in the lives of 13-year-old Terence Miales of East Baltimore and Amir Ghaferi, 21, a first-year student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But they're both participants in a tutoring program that is trying to bridge a gap between Hopkins and its impoverished neighbors.

"When I came to this city, it was a shock," Ghaferi, who is from California, said of the disparate conditions of the gleaming medical institutions and some of the dilapidated nearby East Baltimore communities. "There's so much to do."

As part of a Hopkins course requirement aiming to get aspiring doctors involved in personal and social causes, Ghaferi has organized 15 medical students into a program offering free tutoring for neighborhood children during the school year. The children, ages 8 to 18, write essays, solve math problems and learn to use computers at the Chick Webb Recreation Center on North Eden Street.

Among the compositions that Terence Miales has written as part of his class homework are "The Fifteen Things That I Like About Myself" and an essay discussing his goal of becoming a cartoonist or track runner.

"I have workers at Chick Webb that are good role models," said Terence, one of about 100 youths who have taken part in the Hopkins mentoring program.

The Hopkins medical campus has long struggled with an image of being a monolithic institution aloof from the problems of urban blight around it. Leaders at the medical school hope that a course requirement called "Physician and Society" - from which the program at Chick Webb arose - will help turn around negative perceptions.

"Some are angry at the business mentality of medicine," said Dr. Jean Ogborn, the Hopkins faculty member who coordinates Physician and Society's first-year curriculum. In the community, Hopkins has traditionally been seen as "a big hungry neighbor that gobbles up common space," Ogborn said.

So Ogborn has been encouraging students to take up more outreach work as part of their Physician and Society requirement. Dubbed by students as the school's "Get-a-Life" requirement, the course is graded like any other and encourages participants to pursue personal or social activities, such as art, music, dancing, spending time with children or starting a tutoring program.

Those are unusual course activities for Hopkins medical students, whose schedule in their first year is filled with classes in anatomy, human organ systems and neuroscience.

"This year's group is very intrigued by getting involved in the East Baltimore community," said Ogborn, noting that about 70 percent of the 120 first-year medical students are involved in outreach work. "I do sense a growing social consciousness among medical students in general, with a commitment to bridge the rich-poor gap in a society as rich as ours."

Encouraged by Ogborn and inspired by his parents, who made him promise to serve humanity in unpaid ways with his education, Ghaferi took it upon himself to start something simple.

The informal code among the 15 medical student tutors is to not intimidate the students.

Terence, writing a diary of a day that began at sunup, related getting on the subway with his grandmother - "kind of embarrassing." Then there's someone in class he had "to fuss with ... so that leads to me getting in trouble by the teacher." He called the Chick Webb homework session at 5:30 p.m. his "fun time."

The medical students who tutor at the center, named after the Baltimore jazz legend, say they find the work rewarding.

"Life's not always as crazy as it seems at school," said Arvin Hariri, 22, a Toronto native. "We get as much as we give. It maintains my sanity."

Several said the hands-on nature of helping a child snapped them into a practical realm.

"This time next year I'll be on the wards in a bunch of rotations," Ghaferi said, meaning that he will learn how to attend to patients. "But this is sweet. Chick Webb was something I could immediately grasp onto."

Other first-year medical students acted as mentors this year to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School students, also in East Baltimore, Hopkins officials said.

As the hour ended in a recent Chick Webb homework session, Ronnie Cole, 11, wrote of his dream to be a mathematician. His father, Ronald Cole Sr., said he has noticed his son has better study habits since he started attending the program.

Another working parent, Tonya Moore, said the program lightened her load at the day's end: "We go home and prepare dinner, and I don't have to check her homework."

On their way out the door, Moore said of her daughter Gabriella, 8: "She wants to be a pediatrician."

Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, a faculty member active with Physicians for Social Responsibility, said such small connections matter. "The Hippocratic oath doctors take extends to people in general across the planet. ... It's all interconnected, one single web of life. That's what we want to teach the next generation of physicians," he said.

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