Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doctors, students become 'pen pals' with MGH mentoring program

Dr. Heidi Fusco recalled that the second year of her residency at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital left little time for anything beyond work and sleep.

Yet the Beacon Hill resident found time in her harried schedule to send e-mails to a Boston student she was mentoring named Chantelle, who wanted to be a pediatrician.



Even when Fusco was on call, with her pager going off, she would think"I’m going to finish this e-mail to Chantelle,'' Fusco recalled.

Fusco is one of 25 Boston doctors who volunteered their time—and wisdom—as part of a mentoring program that paired the doctors with local 10th-graders.

The program, part of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Community Health Improvement program, aims to create "formalized mentor experiences,'' said Christy Egun, director of MGH's Boston Partnerships program.

The program's goal, she said, was to ensure that students complete their education. While students and mentors had opportunities to meet, the bulk of the mentoring took place over e-mail.

The one-on-one mentoring program, which started last winter, matched 25 10th-graders from Edward M. Kennedy Academy, East Boston High School, English High, and Fenway High with researchers and physicians.

The students chosen for the program had interests in sience, technology, engineering, or mathematics, Egun said.

Students had the opportunity to meet monthly with their mentors, work in simulation lab and learn about engineering, she said, and students could work with MGH's Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine, where learning to cope with stress was an added benefit.

Mentors also gave students technical and inspirational advice about navigating high school and then pursuing a medical career.

"It’s kind of like having a pen pal,'' said Fusco, 28.

Fusco works with patients with spinal cord injuries and Chantelle, her mentee, wants to be a pediatrician. Fusco said the two discussed their shared interests, "what we like to eat, what we like to do and where we like to go," as well as career aspirations.

"She would talk about how she stays focused on schoolwork," Fusco said of Chantelle, who is now an 11th-grader interning at MGH.

Their e-mail correspondence covered a wide range of topics, Fusco said. She told Chantelle about applying to medical school and taking pre-med courses, and the two discussed how high school "is pretty finite," Fusco said. "[We’d] talk about things that come up in high school, experiences everybody goes through.

"All the doctors I work with were once big dorks,'' Fusco said. "It’s really hard to be focused on education when you’re young, [and not] give in to social pressure.''

Squeezing in time to contact Chantelle during a "pretty tough residency year," with little time for anything beyond work and sleep, was "refreshing," she added.

"It was nice to revisit where I was 10 or 15 years ago," Fusco said. "Hey, I used to be a dreamer. … There’s a reason why I went into this."

"I loved it," said Dr. Farah Hameed, 29, a resident physician in physical medicine and rehabilitation at MGH. Hameed said she was surprised to find that she had a lot in common with her mentee, Manal, a 10th-grader at East Boston High.

The two met three times during Manal's spring semester, but back-and-forth e-mails helped them get to know each other and discuss long-term plans for Manal's future.

"She was trying to figure out what she wanted to do,'' Hameed said. With Manal's interest in psychology, Hameed said she learned about the career field along with her.

"For me, I had such great mentors to help me figure out what to do and the best way to do it," said Hameed, a Back Bay resident. "Anything I could do to give that back.

"I have a little brother who’s 16 -- I remember what it’s like to be in high school." Hameed said. "It’s a great program, a great way to reach out to young students who are trying to figure it out."

Dr. Andree LeRoy, 34, found she had an important connection with her mentee, Shanassa. The two are both Haitian-American, she said, and the program started right after an earthquake devastated the island.

"It was a really good experience," said LeRoy, a Back Bay resident. The physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor volunteered in Haiti three times after the January quake, spending more than six weeks working with Project Hope, training staff members on amputation and helping to build the country's devastated infrastructure.

While there, she and Shanassa kept up a consistent e-mail correspondence, LeRoy said. "She lived vicariously through me.''

"Both of us had this impact," LeRoy said, and Shanassa "felt kind of reassured by what I had to share with her…she thought it was cool and exciting[(that I could] help so many people in the earthquake."

"She liked hearing the stories, the people I met."

Beyond the earthquake, the two also bonded over having first-generation parents who were strict, LeRoy said. "There was a cultural bridge instead of a gap."

The experience of volunteering let LeRoy share not just the "bread and butter" of a medical career, but "the purpose behind why we do what we do."

LeRoy said the mentorship was valuable—for both participants. Starting to feel burnt out from her residency, she said that talking to Shanassa help to "rekindle that inspiration as to why did I go into this field."

LeRoy and the other doctors said they hoped to keep in touch with their mentees, though the program is over. And a second program is just starting up, with a new group of 10th-graders.

"You don’t even think what you say makes a big difference," LeRoy said. "But once you’ve planted these little seeds in people ... it’ll be something amazing."

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