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Phoebe Ilevbare ’20 speaks during a lecture for the Practicing Medicine Program.

Pre-med students explore diverse medical interests

John Carboni ’20 in New York City, where he participated in the program.

John Carboni ’20 got a front-row seat this summer in an operating room at NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital, as doctors performed shoulder replacement surgery, cutting into joints and replacing the ball and socket with a metal prosthesis.

“Orthopedics is a very physical surgery, where people are pulling back muscles, moving around bones,” he said, adding that he didn’t feel the least bit queasy.

Carboni was one of 75 students from Cornell and other universities involved in the College of Human Ecology’s Practicing Medicine Program, a three-credit experience offered through Cornell’s School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.

After Carboni shadowed a few days with the orthopedic surgeon, he spent a day with a neurologist and learned that a typical visit includes more time talking to and screening the patient than conducting a physical exam. He also visited the neonatal intensive care unit and observed a gastroenterologist, a radiologist and a nephrologist in the hospital.

“This is a great way to get exposed to medicine … because I got to shuffle between physicians the entire summer,” he said. “The first rule I learned was to stay away from the blue tablecloths and things, because that’s where all of the sterile equipment is kept.”

Depending on his shadowing assignment, Carboni would arrive at 6:30 a.m. for early surgeries or stay into the late afternoon for appointments. He chatted with doctors about their schedules, day-to-day tasks and why they chose their specialty.

“One of the purposes of this class is to help you understand what it’s really like to practice medicine,” Carboni said. “We also talked about problems with the health care system and what we can do improve it.”

Along with four days a week shadowing doctors, students attended a weekly lecture led by Sam Beck, senior lecturer in anthropology in the College of Human Ecology and director of the program. The lecture featured speakers in the medical field, including Weill Cornell Medicine faculty, and discussion based on reading assignments and reflections on student experiences in medicine.

“Students become participant-observers carrying out an ethnographic inquiry of the culture and practice of medicine,” Beck said. “What makes this program unusual and what differentiates itself from volunteering is that academic coursework is integrated with what students experience by reflecting on their experiences through journal writing; intimate small-scale, peer group seminar discussions; and a term paper.”

The program encouraged students to focus on the entire person during their treatment, thinking about how someone’s gender, class, race or socio-economic situation could affect their ability to stay healthy.

Alexandra Gutierrez ’20 and Phoebe Ilevbare ’20 shadowed physicians at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx and NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, respectively.

“As an Iscol scholar, I learned about public hospital leadership, but I also did the day-to-day shadowing of doctors,” Gutierrez said. “I wanted to see the reality because I knew it would open my eyes a lot.”

Ilevbare is majoring in biology, while Gutierrez has a double major in philosophy and biology, but both knew they wanted to study medicine from the moment they came to Cornell.

“I’ve always been interested in pediatrics,” Ilevbare said, adding that the summer program confirmed her direction.

Ilevbare said she was surprised to learn the length of a doctor’s day and how much time is spent making rounds and doing paperwork. Gutierrez said she didn’t realize the communication challenges that doctors face, especially related to language. In some cases, she acted as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients.

“I was interested to spend so much time learning about the social determinants of health care,” Gutierrez said, while Ilevbare said speakers opened her eyes to the careers available in the field, from researchers to app developers.

Gutierrez spent much of her summer in internal medicine then moved to surgery, while Ilevbare spent a lot of time in pediatrics before moving into shadowing internal medicine and surgical crews.

“Our students have the opportunity to experience what medicine is really about in one of the best hospital systems in the country by shadowing some of the best physicians,” Beck said. “The doctors who students engage with have multiple responsibilities and lead complex professional lives as they treat patients, carry out administrative functions and teach the next generation of doctors.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Lindsey Hadlock