October 31, 1997

Seattle youngsters benefit from innovative VUSM pen pal program

Seattle youngsters benefit from innovative VUSM pen pal program

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VUSM students Kevin Reavis (left) and Dan Herzig prepare to "chat" with school kids in Seattle. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey.)

Kevin Reavis is used to having difficult questions tossed his way by some of the top medical minds in the country.

As a second-year Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student, that's how he spends his days ‹ learning about the human body and the disease process.

But not all of the hard-to-answer questions flying at Reavis are coming from faculty members. Some of the most thought-provoking are from an eight-year-old third grader in Seattle.

That's because Reavis and about 25 other Vanderbilt medical students are participating in an e-mail pen pal program with a split second/third grade class at North City Elementary School in the Shoreline School district near Seattle.

³My Mom¹s got a cold. What should I do to help her,² Niles Garrett recently wrote Reavis via e-mail.

Answering in a way a third-grader can understand sometimes takes some thought, Reavis said.

³It¹s a challenge to put things in terms he can understand without the medical jargon. It¹s nice to break down complex things into simplistic terms he can understand. I told him she could easily become dehydrated and to give her plenty of juice and take her temperature twice a day,² Reavis said.

Besides being concerned about his mother, some of Niles' questions are just plain delightful, Reavis said.

³One day he asked ŒDo you like spiders?¹ and since I was doing a surgery rotation, he asked, ŒDo you operate on spiders?¹ ² Niles ended with a stern message to Reavis: ³You shouldn¹t kill spiders, you know. They¹re good for the environment.²

³It¹s kind of neat to see what a little kid is thinking,² Reavis said. ³I have cousins the same age and it¹s interesting to see how they view the medical field and the world in general,² he said.

"It always puts a smile on my face when he asks things like the spider questions,² Reavis said. ³Writing him back is such minimal trauma on my part. It¹s impossible to say you don¹t have time to answer because it¹s e-mail. It¹s not like they are catching you on their time. I check and answer my messages on my time. It¹s not like he¹s paging me in the O.R.²

The e-mail pen pal program was started four years ago by Rich Gustafson, a first-year VUSM student at the time. His sister, Kristi, teaches the second/third grade split class in Seattle and was looking to connect her students with both medical and law students as pen pals. She chose Vanderbilt because of her brother. The students also correspond with law students from the University of Washington.

The pen pal program was originally begun as a teaching tool when her students were studying the Pilgrims¹ journey to America. Each student assumed the identities of Pilgrim children who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and received short scenario cards explaining their health situations.

Kristi Gustafson's students were matched with medical students who helped answer questions about health conditions circa 1620. Extending the program into a genuine pen pal program was a mutual decision based on the enjoyment of both classes, Gustafson said.

The children's questions run the gamut from medical, ³My grandmother has cancer. What does that mean?² to personal, ³Do You have a girlfriend?²

³One of the most exciting parts of the project was that they were developing relationships and my students and the medical students were becoming friends,² Kristi Gustafson said. Several of the VUSM students have visited the classroom and met their pen pals when they were on trips to Seattle.

Her brother, Rich, says the relationships end up being educational for the medical students as well.

³When they ask you basic medical questions, it¹s really good, with all the specifics you¹re learning, to try and globalize it and generalize it and put it into a third-grade way of understanding. It¹s difficult to do. But it¹s helpful and fun for me," Rich Gustafson said.

"I get a lot out of it. It¹s something so different from medical school, and you¹re using your knowledge to help someone else out.²

Rich Gustafson, a fourth-year medical student, is an exception to the inclusion of mostly first- and second-year students in the program. The reason the program is limited to students in their first two years is that they generally have more time to spend on the computer, Gustafson said. Third year students, who are confined to the hospital for long hours, generally do not have time.

The elementary students are paired with medical students for two years, the time they spend in Ms. Gustafson's class.

Dan Herzig is another second-year medical student who has been participating in the program for two years with Randall Enlow, now a third grader.

³I encourage him to ask lots of questions,² Herzig said. ³In the beginning, I made sure he knew nothing was off limits and the more questions the better. It's good for me to try to figure out some of these big questions and how to give short answers to them in a way that an elementary student can understand."

Herzig "talks" to Randall about once every week. Occasionally they skip a week, and other times there are daily messages.

"It keeps you honest to remember what the world looks like through the eyes of someone so young," Herzig said. "We're around people every day far more educated than we are, so it's a reality check to explain things to an elementary student."