Back in my days on the hospital wards, I was haunted by the patients I was taking care of who were suffering and dying from preventable diseases.
I felt that we as a culture had let those people down. There were things they should have been taught— things about relaxation and eating and exercise, smoking and drinking and diet—along with reading and geography and math, starting back in the first grade.
And not only had we let these people down, we were letting down all the children who are now studying reading and geography and math, and who could so easily be introduced to the skills of medical self-care.
When I finished my clinical rotations, and had the opportunity to devote several months to an M.D. thesis project, I decided to set up a class in medical skills for first-graders.
Getting the Project Started
The teachers I spoke to at the Foote School in New Haven were most enthusiastic about the idea. They all would have liked to make such information available to their children in their classes, but they'd had no training in such things, and they had few resources available to help them.
Before long, three co-workers and I had arranged to take eight first and second grade children to an unused classroom two afternoons a week for eight weeks, to see what we could do in the way of teaching them medical stuff. We borrowed a videotape setup to record whatever happened.
From talking with the teachers, we felt it would be wisest to explore what the kids would like to learn about, rather than coming in with a pre-packaged set of goals. We ended up defining the class to the kids like this: "This is a time for you to find out things you'd like to know about your bodies, about doctors and what they do, about what happens when you get sick, and about what you can do to keep yourself healthy.
''Your job is to ask good questions and think of neat ways to learn about bodies. Our job is to answer some questions and to help you figure out how to find your own answers to others."
They ended up calling the sessions "Doctor Class," and bragged about being included. The children who weren't able to be in the group were envious.
Who, Me? Teach Medicine?
That's what we wondered before starting the class. I was only a medical student at the time. None of us were experts. What if they asked something none of us knew?
We finally came to understand these doubts as a reflection of our own conditioning about medical knowledge. There's a very strong myth in this culture to the effect that medical information is so specialized that a little knowledge is such a dangerous thing that it's really best not to try to know anything about "doctor stuff," but to leave that "to the experts."
One of the most important things we ended up learning for ourselves was that it's all right for a group of people to get together to talk about illness and bodies—even though no one in the group knows all the answers. One of the most important medical self-care skills turns out to be asking good questions and then figuring out how to go about finding the answers.
Being in the class got us involved in thinking about questions we wanted to know the answers to, and what we'd have to do to find out. One of the questions I've thought a lot about since is, "Why do we have eyebrows, anyway?" Something I'd never learned in medical school. I'd still like a good answer to that one.
We helped the kids use the library to find answers to some of their own questions, and to match other questions to resources we had available.