HMS MEDScience Program Introduces Students to the Practice of Medicine

The patient had the medical team stumped. Jeannie was a 22-year-old college student complaining of fatigue and stomach pain. She seemed generally healthy, and though she occasionally drank to excess, her liver panel and other test results were mostly normal.

Also: She was made of plastic and wore a bright-blue fright wig.

“Jeannie” is a high-tech mannequin used for simulating various medical situations and procedures, and the medical team, clad in scrubs and carefully reviewing the case at each step, was made up of Rivers seniors enrolled in the Anatomy and Physiology elective. The students were in their last session at HMS MEDScience program; several times throughout the semester, they traveled to Harvard Medical School to participate in hands-on classes taught by doctors and other medical professionals. At the heart of each session is the opportunity to work on a simulated patient, and at this point in the semester, they had performed an intubation, learned to take vital signs, inserted an IV, and diagnosed and treated an asthma attack, a heart attack, and type 1 diabetes. 

Rivers has participated in the program for many years, and the class has been taught by various members of the Science Department faculty. This year, Nick Herrmann—a faculty member since 2021—taught the class for the first time. The rigorous coursework, which takes students through the respiratory, endocrine, cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems, is complemented by the MEDScience sessions, where students put what they’ve learned to use and get a glimpse of what it might mean to work as a physician or other medical professional. 

On six Tuesdays throughout the semester, the students climbed into a Rivers van driven by Herrmann and made their way to the Longwood Medical Area. “I didn’t know what to expect [from the MEDScience program],” said Herrmann on a recent chilly Tuesday morning, as he steered the van toward Boston. “I was blown away.”

Not only do the students master some of the basics of medical treatment, said Herrmann, they learn how to put such treatments, and the patients who receive them, in context. One approach to teaching anatomy and physiology, he said, is to focus solely on the various body systems and their organs: “This is the heart, this is the lungs.” But a course like this offers the opportunity to also emphasize "the human element of medicine.” Said Herrmann, “The students look at social determinants of health—at the role played by gender, economic status, race, and other factors in determining an individual’s potential medical risks and access to health resources. It’s been cool to watch them grapple with this.” Weekly written reflections encourage students to see the full picture of patient care and not simply the biology behind medical situations.

In the simulation lab, the students were greeted by Maria-Kassandra Coronel, an energetic doctor who has served as their primary MEDScience educator, and Adway Gopakumar, an aspiring medical student. The day’s topic—their “last case,” as Coronel put it—was the nervous system, and after a quick review of how the system functions, the group got to work on the simulated patient. 

Coronel and Gopakumar entered an adjoining room where they could view the procedures through a one-way mirror. Coronel provided the voice of “Jeannie,” convincingly performing the part of a patient presenting a complex medical puzzle for the students. 

Their first step was to gather a patient history, which they did with the fluency and aplomb of professionals. They learned that Jeannie was attending college on a track scholarship but had recently had ACL surgery, putting her scholarship in jeopardy. The students elicited her family history, details about her lifestyle, and additional information about her symptoms, but a diagnosis remained elusive. All the while, Coronel played the patient in a manner so lifelike that when one student said out loud, “Jeannie is kind of mean,” another responded, “Shh, she can hear you.”

Finally, after a few rounds of tests, they hit on the solution: Jeannie showed all the signs of opioid addiction. They then swung into action as Jeannie seemed to lose consciousness after a potential overdose, administering CPR and narcan to counteract the drug’s effects. 

The patient resuscitated, Gopakumar stepped back into the room to ask, “So what are the doctors’ recommendations?”

The students agreed: Jeannie needed to cut off the friend who’d been supplying her drugs and go to rehab. As they stepped toward the bed to deliver the message, Leila Saponaro ’24 said, “Wait—how are we going to word this?” After all, the topic is a sensitive one. After briefly conferring, the students told Jeannie, with an impressive display of bedside manner, that they had seen signs of addiction, that they understood how scary that might seem, that she was not alone, that she was going to be ok, and that they would find help for her. 

Coronel returned to the room for a quick debrief about neurotransmitters and how they’re affected by opiates. And then, to cap off the last session, there was a short graduation ceremony, with each student receiving a certificate of completion and sharing a few words about the impact of the program. Coronel thanked the group for being “an awesome team, with curious and open minds.”

As he picked up his “diploma,” Alex Goldsmith ’24 said, “This really did inspire me. Now I’m hoping to major in pre-med in college.” Marina Joseph ’24 said, “I had fun and learned a lot.” Ella Kaufman ’24 thanked “Dr. Goldsmith” for “saving a patient I killed earlier.” And Taylor Parsons ’24 may have spoken for the entire group when she said, “This really opened my eyes. I really loved learning about the practice of medicine.”
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