According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 12 million children living with a chronic illness in the United States. Of those 12 million, more than 500,000 live in Orange County. Many families in the county turn to the UCI Medical Center for hospital care. A group of UCI medical students are working to make the UCI Medical Center a place where compassion is mixed in with pediatric hospital care.
PALS is a student-initiated public service program run at the UCI School of Medicine. The program fosters relationships between medical students and chronically ill children and their siblings.
PALS originated at Stanford University, where Tiffany Chang, a second-year UCI medical student attended as an undergraduate. When Chang came to UCI medical school last fall, she joined with Heather Richmond and Francesca Staiti, who are both currently second-year UCI medical students and PALS student leaders.
According to Chang, she was inspired to start PALS by a pediatrician friend.
‘The three of us attended a student-faculty retreat where we met a pediatrician. We talked to the pediatrician and pitched the idea I kind of stole from Stanford,’ Chang said.
PALS was launched in January 2003 and is supervised by Eileen Andrade, director of Child Life Services at the center.
‘It’s a big brother, big sister program for medical students and chronically-ill kids,’ Chang said.
The purpose of the program is to pair first and second year medical students with pediatric patients as pals, who visit each other regularly for activities and outings.
PALS deals with children who suffer from diseases such as cancer, renal disease, spinal bifida and morbid obesity. The children in the program range in age from six to 16 years old.
There are currently 28 medical students who are participating in PALS, including 11 second-year students and 17 first year students.
‘It’s part of our curriculum now, so we get credit,’ Richmond said.
Medical students gain knowledge from the symbiotic relationship they have with their pals.
‘It’s kind of a way for us to see how people live with disease, so when we’re physicians we can be more empathetic,’ Chang said.
In the program, students are required to contact their ‘pals’ at least twice a month. There are a variety of activities that the duos are allowed to take part in.
‘We take them to movies, we go and play with the children at their homes, take them to the park. It depends on the child and what they want to do,’ Chang said.
The medical students also observe and visit the children when they go to the hospital, and get to know them very well this way.
‘We can go visit them while they are in the hospital, so we get to see things from the patients’ point of view,’ Richmond said.
Staiti sees PALS as a break from the academic pressures in medical school.
‘Some days when I am fed up with med school, I go see my pal and come back with a renewed perspective,’ Staiti said. ‘I remember why I am here studying, this is why I want to be a doctor.’
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