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 Self-Care: Teaching Medicine to Kids 

Throat Examination. Our kids were fascinated by tonsils, though they didn't quite know what they were. We had the kids pair up, equipped each pair with a regular flashlight, and had them look in each other's throats.

Children's tonsils are usually easy to see. We asked the kid being examined to "pant like a dog." This almost always made using a tongue blade unnecessary. (If one was necessary, we had the person being examined hold it.)

The examiner first locates the uvula, a small midline flap of skin hanging down above the back of the tongue. On either side of it are the tonsils.

Children who have had many sore throats will have larger tonsils. Those who have had tonsilectomies won't have any.

Informal Question Period

We started the class with very skill-oriented goals. Would the kids be able to use a stethoscope? A blood pressure cuff? Would they be at all interested in nutrition?

During the question-and-answer sessions, the kids exhibited a good deal of anxiety about doctor's visits—particularly about shots and other painful procedures.

Our children—and most of the rest of us as well— usually only saw the doctor when we were sick. If we only see the doctor when we're ill—or when we need shots—we'll learn to associate the doctor's office or clinic with being frightened or in pain.

The questions they asked reflected their concerns— and their sense of helplessness—about what happened when they visited the doctor's office or were in the hospital—"What happens when they give you gas in an operation?" "What happens if you have cancer?" "What happens when an animal dies?" (We found that in talking about sex and death they preferred to talk about such things happening to animals.)

In responding to these questions, we found that our most important job was to help the child asking the question to fully explore the feelings that his or her questions expressed. The hardest thing for us was to keep from giving a superficially correct answer at the expense of letting the child share a deeply felt concern.

Field Trips

I wish we could have taken more field trips. My first choices would have been the children's ward and newborn nursery of a local hospital, and a pediatrician's office.

Because of scheduling and supervisory problems, we were limited to one field trip. The kids chose to go to an animal hospital.

It turned out to be a fine choice. The veterinarian showed us all the cats, dogs, and other animal patients, and explained why each one was there. We got a tour of the operating rooms, and a description of the most common surgical procedures he did.

Perhaps the most fascinating part for the kids was the demonstration of dog and cat X-rays. We had to drag the kids away.

Independent Projects

In most cases this involved working with library materials and with us individually, in putting together "books"—hand drawn and lettered—on their chosen topics. One boy chose to learn to use the microscope. Another boy brought in his collection of bones he had found in the woods, and compared them to some human bones we were able to borrow from the anatomy department of my medical school.

Some were able to concentrate on their chosen topic with only occasional questions. Others needed nearly continuous adult support.

Afterthoughts—What We Should Have Done

After the class was over, of course, we thought of all kinds of wonderful ideas. Like a game called "Make Yourself Sick," in which each child would think of as many ways of making his or her health worse as he or she could.

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 About The Author
Tom Ferguson MDTom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher who virtually led the movement to advocate informed self-care as the starting point for good health. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote......more
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