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Of Meatballs and Medicine

“Would you like one meatball or two?”

The words stumbled off my tongue as I smiled sheepishly at the people I was serving dinner to.

Throughout my first few weeks of medical school, I had frequently experienced the same acute awareness of my own inadequacy. From long hours spent in the gross anatomy lab in a mixed state of amazement, perplexity and reverence, to the scrutiny of seemingly cryptic pink shapes in histology lab, I had grown accustomed to feeling fairly inept. Nevertheless, my excitement towards meeting residents of a rural town amplified as the first day of my rural health elective approached.

On a warm August evening, I arrived at the town with a population of a thousand. A long gravel road, rusty railroad tracks, a volunteer fire department and a public library welcomed me. Hazel fields crept into each glimpse of my surroundings.  Upon arriving at the local elementary school, I was given the task of serving the meatball and spaghetti dinner that was kindly prepared by members of the close-knit community for our program participants.  After various welcome speeches from program coordinators, each of the ten first year medical students paired with one fourth year nursing student. Each pair was designated a faculty mentor: a doctor or a nurse. This healthcare team would meet with one local family once a month for the remainder of the academic year. Our goal was to support the family in various ways, from improving health literacy to simply lending an ear. No white coats. No laptops.  Just presence.

On our first meeting, our task consisted of informally obtaining a family history and becoming familiar with each other. The nursing student on my team, Josie, conversed with the family with remarkable ease. Her words flowed so naturally and gently – even the difficult questions seemed less daunting to answer. I, on the other hand, had not anticipated the extent of my nerves. I was able to blurt out a question or two but with far less agility than Josie. Despite my less-than-perfect history taking skills, our family, the Pearsons, were more than happy to talk to us. We were strangers – merely students, and they not only accepted us but they also opened up to us. They shared details of their lives even close friends will never know.

To be a grandparent raising four grandchildren is no simple task. After raising their three sons, the Pearsons had not anticipated parenting again, especially not in their late sixties. The Pearsons devotion and commitment to raising their grandchildren continues to inspire me. Scheduling three-hour spans multiple times a month to attend doctor’s appointments, driving forty-five minutes each week for fresh groceries, and learning to raise an autistic child are but a few changes the Pearsons made when adopting their grandchildren. Although the couple admitted to sleeping less and stressing more, their questions for us focused on the well-being of their grandchildren. And this first meeting marked the trend for all that followed.

As the year advanced, I gained more confidence at our meetings. As a team, we set goals with the family and followed-up on their progress. I looked forward to our reunions. Although Mr. Pearson was away during our last meeting, he called to proudly announce he had been riding his stationary bike as planned. As we celebrated his achievement, I realized our presence had mattered. It had mattered to the Pearsons and it had mattered to me. Our team had aided the Pearsons by offering advice, listening, and being truly present. But the Pearsons had assisted me in the same ways and more. They unknowingly demonstrated how love for a hometown, its residents, and each other could provide tremendous strength and courage.

I registered for the rural health elective unsure of what I would learn. I did not foresee how much impact one family could make on my perspective on life as well as on medicine. I aspire to treat each patient with the enthusiasm and intimacy we developed with the Pearsons. A wholesome spaghetti and meatball dinner brings people together every day. I am grateful this dinner brought me to the Pearsons.

Danielle Roberts Danielle Roberts (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine

My name is Danielle Roberts, and I am a student in the Class of 2016 at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. I received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. I currently serve as the co-president of my school’s charter of Family Medicine Interest Group and as a mentor for first years enrolled in the rural health elective. Born of a British father and a Chilean mother, having lived in Argentina for most of my childhood, and subsequently moving to Texas, I have developed an appreciation for cultural and linguistic differences. I embark in the field of medicine with the hope of reducing health disparities among minority and under-served populations and promoting cultural competence among health care providers.