An Alternate Approach to Meds

This upcoming spring quarter will offer a new, unique course called “Compassion in Medicine.” Created by seniors Bethel Mesgana and Douglas Cheung, the class will meet on Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and is open to a maximum 200 students. If completed, undergraduate students will receive one course credit with the pass/no pass option and medical students will receive annotation on their transcript.

Mesgana and Cheung got this once-in-a-lifetime chance because they are the two recipients of the 2010-11 XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship. Established at UC Irvine in 2004, the scholarship annually recognizes students that are committed to ethical leadership, peace and positive global relations.

These two students each received $7,500 and shared an additional $2,500 to develop an undergraduate course and public forum.

“I’m still in disbelief over receiving the scholarship,” Mesgana said. “It’s a huge honor, but it’s also a big responsibility.”

Modeled after the Biology 92 “Disparity in Healthcare” class currently being offered by the School of Biological Sciences, Mesgana and Cheung’s class has a potential syllabus that includes the participation of six notable lecturers. For example, Dr. Wadie Najm, Dr. Laura Mosqueda and Dr. Roger Walsh will be giving lectures about a holistic approach to integrative medicine, elder abuse and neglect and psychiatry and spirituality, respectively.

“After attending the Dalai Lama’s seminars, board members of Students for Integrative Medicine (SIM) were inspired to spread the message of compassion,” Cheung said. “That is why we propose creating a class that will teach students of the UC Irvine community how to connect with the suffering of their patients.”

In addition to the lectures, a patient panel discussion will be held. Sponsored by the AIDS Service Foundation, patients with terminal illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and congenital diseases will share their stories.

Also, the UCI Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum will co-host a panel called “How to Cultivate Compassion,” where students, staff, faculty members and even non-UCI community members will be invited. The two-hour event will have renowned healers and spiritual leaders, as well as time for networking, “mingling” and audience questions.

Mesgana and Cheung also plan to remain good on their word to get the community at large involved as well. UCI student clubs and local community organizations unaffiliated with UCI are invited to nominate themselves for “leading and implementing a compassion inspired service project.”

They will ensure that the outcomes of the course are available to everyone by uploading every lecture and panel discussion on YouTube and other social media sites.

Although it depends on how well the course goes next quarter, both hope that it will be ongoing and have been constructing the syllabus with that in mind.

“When it comes down to it, our biggest goal is for people to expand their horizons and learn to be compassionate,” Mesgana said. “This is not an instant transformation, but hopefully it will establish a more positive outlook in the patient and a better lifestyle for that patient.”

The two seniors met during a SIM meeting, which Cheung cofounded. Mesgana, who moved with her family to the United States from Ethiopia in 1998, decided to join this campus organization because it really touched a personal cord with her.

“I have a congenital heart condition so I saw cardiologists in Ethiopia and in America,” Mesgana said. “My doctor recommended using the holistic perspective by talking to me about my lifestyle and knowing me as a person rather than just treating my disease.”

Since SIM focuses on viewing patients through a holistic lens as a person rather than just finding a treatment for the disease, she still remains highly involved in the club as vice president.

Cheung was also inspired by personal experience. Over four years ago, he learned that his best friend had tested positive for HIV/AIDS. Immediately, he signed up as a volunteer at Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT), an HIV agency.

“To many physicians and health care workers, people with HIV/AIDS are reduced to a row of figures on a medical chart,” Cheung said. “In contrast, APAIT is a unique organization.”

As a volunteer, he learned that compassion is more than an ideology; instead, it can truly be expressed and practiced. Cheung became a Youth Health Educator and hosted education workshops. He then worked as a student assistant at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center and began collaborating with the Health Education Center to initiate World AIDS Day 2008.

Cheung also began his research in acupuncture at UCI, which exposed him to integrative medicine.

“This is an innovative holistic approach to medicine,” Cheung said. “In contrast to the focus of conventional medicine in palliative care, the focus of integrative medicine is on the caring for the patient.”

Cheung aspires to investigate the science behind acupuncture to maximize the efficacy and minimize the cost in providing a better treatment option to patients. Specializing in neurobiology, Cheung nurses a keen interest towards the underlining biological processes of these innovative medical modalities.

In 2009, Cheung met Dr. Roger Walsh and Priel Schmalbach, a third-year MD/Ph.D student. Together, they founded SIM to advocate and promote integrative medicine.

“The ideas for our course had been something [Cheung] and [Schmalbach] were thinking about,” Mesgana said. “It fit well with the scholarship so [Cheung] said we should apply as a club. I was fortunate to jump on board and we applied together. It was all the SIM members who truly helped make this possible.”

On her way to become the first college graduate of her family, Mesgana continues to exemplify compassion in academics. Double majoring in sociology and biology, she is interested in fusing international social work and the health field together.

Mesgana and Cheung both hope to get a medical degree. Mesgana wants to serve internationally, dedicating herself to development, preventative care education and primary health care with compassion to third-world countries like Ethiopia. Cheung will be in pursuit of a new treatment approach to HIV/AIDS that comes in the form of integrative medicine.

Cheung continues to view the Dalai Lama with awe and the utmost respect.

“On the very chair I sat on, about 20 rows away from His Holiness, I surrendered myself to compassion and realized that it had been my inspiration,” Cheung said. “It inspired me to care for my best friend, become an HIV doctor and be a mentor to my committee directors.”

Mesgana couldn’t agree more.

“The Dalai Lama shows you how the seemingly most complicated questions are  simple and makes you laugh about it,” Mesgana said.