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CMSRU's "Sidekicks" program teams medical students with young patients

The future doctors provide vital supports to kids and families while gaining valuable experiences

Having a child with a severe, chronic illness can overwhelm any family. Camden kids and parents are especially at risk, due to the added financial and social challenges they often face.

But Cooper Medical School at Rowan University (CMSRU) is helping through an innovative community-service program. Moreover, the initiative is teaching future physicians about the needs and challenges of real patients and caregivers.

The program -- called Sidekicks -- pairs medical-student volunteers with city children who have life-threatening or chronic health conditions. The students attend medical appointments with the family and stay in touch between doctor visits. They help families navigate the healthcare system, and provide emotional support and companionship.

“Without them, I would probably be a stress box!” says Tiffany Porter, a single mom whose daughter DaShay Washington has sickle-cell anemia.

“It’s really hard,” says Tiffany, describing her 4-year-old’s frequent pain and hospitalizations – plus the daily challenges of juggling her job and caring for her other child.

But DaShay’s Sidekicks, CMSRU students Lauren Treene and Christine Collins, ease some of that burden.

For instance, when DaShay is hospitalized, a Sidekick stays with her when her mom, dad or another relative can’t be there.

“Lauren and Christine are really good with her,” says Tiffany, a certified nursing assistant at an area nursing home. “They get back to me right away [when I call]. I can run out to the store, get food… They come over and help out a lot.”

The Sidekicks also assist with insurance paperwork, obtaining government benefits, and arranging transportation to medical appointments, among other tasks.

For Tiffany, the toughest part of DaShay’s illness is “seeing her in pain.” But Lauren’s presence is “comforting,” she notes. 

A CMSRU student is featured spending time with a young child.

Forming close bonds
On a recent visit, DaShay ran straight to Lauren and jumped into her arms.

“I like her to play with me,” says the outgoing kindergartner, who feels “happy” when she’s with her Sidekick.

Lauren makes sure to bring a small toy, game or book when she visits DaShay, who is fond of both princess characters and matchbox cars. The two also like to play hopscotch and tag together.

“Lauren is amazing,” beams Tiffany. “She’s always there as a listening ear. She’s like my bestie!”

Sidekicks work with patients ages 1 to 18, and gear their interaction to the patient’s age and interests. With older youth, for example, they may discuss school or social concerns, share hobbies, go out to eat, or play video games together. Another Sidekick, Krysta Frye, helped her 18-year-old patient apply to a medical technician program and has continued to be a support and mentor through her transition to college.  

“There’s a broad spectrum of how you can help,” notes Lauren.

The student-patient connection is a key benefit of Sidekicks, explains Rafat Ahmed, MD, the program’s faculty advisor since Sidekicks’ 2013 inception.

Overcoming barriers
“The relationship and mentoring flows both ways between the students and the patients,” says the assistant professor of pediatrics at CMSRU and chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Cooper University Health Care.

“Sidekicks exposes medical students to the complex issues of life-threatening illness affecting patients and caregivers, early in their education,” Dr. Ahmed remarks. “It helps them develop skills necessary to communicate effectively with children and families with this kind of illness.”

 At most medical schools, students don’t start interacting with patients until their third year.

For Lauren, now in her second-year, the experience has been “wonderful.”

“I’ve developed a really solid relationship with the family,” she says

Students get the opportunity to be an active advocate for their patient, to understand the various social challenges families can face in caring for their child, and to increase their empathy as a future physician, Dr. Ahmed adds.

This advocacy takes many forms, as Sidekicks students Sakshi Gandhi and Chelsea O’Koren can attest to. They feel that it’s “the little things that make the biggest difference,” such as making sure their patient gets the first appointment of the day so her mother can make an important meeting at work, or looking up phone numbers for echocardiograms and insurance issues so the family doesn’t have to. 

Working with DaShay and Tiffany has been eye-opening, for Lauren too.

“I’ve learned how difficult it is for the family when their child has a chronic condition. All the hoops they have to jump through with medications, costs, medical appointments, tests… It’s very draining on the family and very hard,” says Lauren.

Last summer, for example, DaShay’s family needed to arrange complex testing to gain insurance approval for a powerful medication. The task was confusing and time-consuming, so Lauren lent a hand. “I had to call the hospital, get in touch with the right people, navigate all the terminology… We eventually figured it out and got it approved.”

As a result, the aspiring doctor has “learned to be more patient and understanding of all the different things that can go wrong when someone has a chronic condition, and how frustrating it can be.”  

Creating a community
Another important goal of Sidekicks is to bring families together -- for fun and socialization, as well as mutual support.

Last year, the students launched support-group meetings, where families can share their experiences and advice with each other. The Sidekicks hold special events throughout the year, including a Halloween party, December holiday celebration, and a spring trip to Adventure Aquarium in Camden.

Going forward, the students hope to continue to foster this growing community, as well as expand their ability to help out the families in any way they can. Currently, the students are exploring ways to ease the financial burden of transportation and medication that many of these families encounter. Small gestures such as these have the potential to make a big difference in how well these patients are able to manage their health conditions.

“The smiles and caring make a big impact on kids and parents,” notes Dr. Ahmed. “They see a face that says ‘We care for you.’”

In DaShay’s case, she’s done much better this past year, with fewer hospitalizations and more time being an active, inquisitive elementary-schooler.

“She’s a really happy kid; a really playful person and a real character,” says Tiffany. “It’s hard, but we have the support from my mom, her husband, and DaShay’s Sidekicks.”

*March is PROFfunder month, Rowan’s crowdfunding resource.  You can make a contribution to Sidekicks today at: