Genetics Aside, a Family in Every Sense of the Term

Posted in GUMC Stories

Some of his 20 charges likely view him as a bit of a surrogate parent, others may see him as a mentor. But Kenneth Dretchen, PhD, would be happy to be known simply as the go-to guy to whom new medical students feel comfortable turning when they need guidance.

Dretchen’s group consists of 10 first-year and 10 second-year medical students who were randomly chosen to be part of his “academic family.” Nineteen other faculty and staff members at Georgetown University Medical Center have similar-sized “families” of their own.

The value of these academic families at Georgetown School of Medicine is incalculable, say many of these household heads, known as pre-clinical advisors.

“This is a first-rate program,” says Dretchen, a long-time participant in the program and chair of the department of pharmacology at Georgetown University Medical Center. “Students, especially in their first year, can have a tough time adjusting or a situation they may need help with.

“They need to have someone who is on their side, and is ready and willing to help in any way possible,” he adds.

The School of Medicine’s academic families program uniquely reflects Georgetown’s core values, says Joy P. Williams, senior associate dean for students and director of the office of minority student development at the School of Medicine.

“It reflects our mission of cura personalis,” says Williams, who manages the program and is an advisor herself, referring to the Georgetown credo meaning “care of the whole person.”

“Students are people who have the same needs all of us have — social, emotional and spiritual. Academic families give us a structure in which those needs can be nurtured.”

Working the family connections

New medical students are assigned an advisor on the first day of orientation, and from that point on the new family gets together both in one-on-one meetings and family social events. Potluck dinners are a favorite, but the get-togethers can be as diverse as attending jazz on the National Mall or running together for a charity. Second-year students also attend, and sometimes, third- and fourth-year students join in.

Samuel Mcaleese, a first-year student, believes his first few weeks in medical school would have been much different without his new family, headed by Williams, to provide support. “I think it would have taken me longer to feel at home here,” says Mcaleese. “There have been plenty of crowded lectures where I’ve not seen anyone I knew, but then spotted someone in my family, and sat by them.”

Having second-year med students in his family also provides “a fantastic resource,” he says. “Even when we aren’t calling them every night with questions about our next exam, knowing that we could call them is a weight off our minds.”

Second-year med student Susan Walters knows exactly what Mcaleese is talking about — she is prepared for the calls she will get as first-year students prepare to enter the anatomy (cadaver) lab for the first time.  As a “big sib,” Walters will make sure to calm her little sibs down as that day approaches.

“My big sib told me last year that people get scared because they have no idea what they are doing in the lab and are nervous going in because it’s a very intense environment,” Walters says. “She made sure I was comfortable, she provided resources to help me study, she told me what professors to watch out for,” she adds with a laugh.

Walters plans to pay it forward with her little sibs, and she knows her advisor, Margarita Abaunza, MA, will also help “chill the little sibs out.” Abaunza, an associate registrar at the School of Medicine, does this by taping little goodie bags filled with treats on her family members’ lockers, holding luncheons and “just being an amazing resource,” Walters says. “If ever I have a question about a class, [Abaunza] knows exactly who to go to. She even helped me get a research position in California last summer, when I went back home.”

Abaunza enjoys her academic family, saying “it has allowed me to encourage and support the school’s Jesuit tradition in a meaningful way. The faculty take care of educating students by sharing their knowledge and advisors take care of supporting our students,” she says.

An “unspoken sentiment”

Advisors sometimes take on serious issues and unexpected events within their families.

Second-year student Paul Elsbernd suffered an AC joint separation the first weekend after his first year of medical school started. He had to have shoulder surgery within days, and Dretchen, his advisor, got to work, helping to reschedule exams and to ensure Elsbernd had enough time to take them.

“Throughout my time in medical school thus far, I’ve never felt like I didn’t have someone to talk to, and I credit [Dr.] Dretchen and my ‘family’ for that,” he adds.

“There is an unspoken sentiment about the family system at Georgetown,” says Leslie Andriani, a second-year student in Williams’ family.

“Whether commiserating in the library on a Friday night, doing a group run around the monuments or experimenting in the kitchen before a potluck dinner, I know that these students are more than just my peers and doctors to whom I might refer my future patients, they are lifelong friends that I will continue to cherish for many years to come,” Andriani adds.

And, not least, Andriani says her big sibs lightened her load in one very important way: “I have learned from those above me that medical school is fun!”

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications

(Published September 18, 2013)