Gifts highlight strong, lasting bonds between patients and healersby Nancy Humphrey | Mar. 24, 2016, 10:00 AM
Sometimes saying thank you just isn’t enough.
For many Vanderbilt University Medical Center patients, expressing gratitude for their health often takes a philanthropic turn, leaving both the patient and the physician feeling fulfilled.
Last year, to mark National Doctors’ Day, Ed Gleason of Estill Springs, Tennessee, was one of many patients who chose to give to the Medical Center in honor of physicians whose work has changed their lives. Established in 1990 by an act of Congress, National Doctors’ Day is observed each year on March 30 to “celebrate the contribution of physicians who serve our country by caring for its citizens.”
Gleason, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, was sent by a local ophthalmologist to Vanderbilt to see Paul Sternberg, M.D., in 2009 when a suspicious mole was discovered on the back of his eye. By 2015 the lesion had grown into a melanoma, and Sternberg referred him to Anthony Daniels, M.D., an ocular oncologist at VUMC, for brachytherapy, a procedure in which radioactive iodine seeds are sewn to the wall of the eye, deliver a high dose of radiation directly to the tumor, and are removed a week later.
Since the procedure is targeted it does less damage to the surrounding structure of the eye — the eyelashes, retina, optic nerve — and there are fewer complications. Gleason, 77, credits Sternberg and Daniels with saving his life and his eyesight. He is doing well, and sees Daniels at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI) every six months. He is grateful for the time he has to spend with his wife, Janice, three sons and seven grandchildren, and recently took three of his grandchildren to Walt Disney World for several days.
Gleason chose to make a financial gift to VEI in honor of his medical team.
“Had they not taken the quick action when they did, I might be telling a totally different story. It would have gone beyond what they could treat,” he said. “They’ve been so responsive, taking time to answer all my questions. I know they’re a busy group, but they’ve always been very good about helping me.”
Sternberg said that Gleason’s gift, and gifts of others in honor of their physician, are more than just an expression of gratitude.
“I think the fact that Mr. Gleason made a gift is a reflection of an extraordinary relationship built between a patient with a severe, potentially devastating diagnosis and his physician. Whether it’s to help care for other patients who may not be as fortunate or to support research into the causes of and treatments for their condition, it’s a wonderful gesture,” Sternberg said.
In his role as Chief Patient Experience Officer for the Medical Center Sternberg is highly attuned to what patients want from their caregivers.
“A good physician communicates well, is a good listener, takes time to answer questions and makes sure the patient understands his or her diagnosis and treatment plan,” Sternberg said. “It takes compassion because of the vulnerability of our patients. It requires sensitivity. Both of those are really challenged by today’s health care environment, where we’re asking doctors to see more patients and comply with extensive billing and documentation requirements. It really requires a special effort on the part of physicians to still connect with patients even when they feel overburdened. At the end of the day, we’re fortunate to be in a profession where we can really help people.”
Gratitude and validation
Michael Hackett of Brentwood, Tennessee, is another grateful patient who has made a financial gift to Vanderbilt to honor the physician who treats his type 2 diabetes — Michael Fowler, M.D., associate professor of Medicine. They have a strong doctor-patient relationship that Hackett credits with extending his life. “Dr. Fowler told me ‘if you don’t take care of your diabetes, it will take care of you,’” Hackett said.
Fowler “always sits down in a chair, at eye level, and talks in terms I can understand. He’s an incredible listener, and everything all doctors should be,” Hackett said. “You get the sense, as busy as he is, that you’re the most important thing to him at that moment in time.”
Hackett, 69, a retired vice president of human resources for a local company, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2004. He sees Fowler at least once a year, often more.
“To fight diabetes you have to take the advice of the doctor and put it to work. Dr. Fowler had such an interest in my care; I didn’t want to disappoint him. It’s so nice to have someone outside your family who cares so much about you.”
Hackett said that Medicare pays for his health care, but he felt that Fowler and Vanderbilt aren’t being “fairly reimbursed.” So he makes an annual financial contribution to Vanderbilt in Fowler’s name, and also one to honor his internal medicine physician, John Peach, M.D., of Vanderbilt Primary Care Green Hills.
Fowler said that Hackett’s gifts, and his kind words, fill him with “gratitude and sense of validation. These are the things I always want to do, the doctor I always want to be,” he said, adding that he believes in practicing what he learned while training to be a doctor — that it’s important to be face to face with his patients and use terms that the patient can understand.
Fowler takes it one step further. When he’s running behind schedule, he sticks his head into the examining room of a waiting patient, apologizes, and says he’ll be in soon. It only takes a few seconds, and he believes his patients deserve the courtesy.
Fowler identifies with his patients because he’s been one himself. As a child, he had a heart defect that was repaired at Vanderbilt. His family drove five hours from east Tennessee so that he could be cared for by Thomas Graham, M.D., and Harvey Bender, M.D., his cardiologist and his surgeon, respectively. “I’ll always remember what they did for me as a kid,” he said.
An enduring tribute
And sometimes patients choose to honor their physicians with longer-term financial planning.
Karen Kendrick-Baker and her husband, Jerry, of Manchester, Tennessee, think so highly of their Vanderbilt physicians that they have included the Medical Center in their estate planning.
“We have no children and have a very small family. When I thought about the thing that most impacts my life, I thought of Vanderbilt and Dr. Jagasia,” she said.
Shubhada Jagasia, M.D., MMHC, professor of Medicine, has been Kendrick-Baker’s physician since 1999 when she first saw her as a resident. Kendrick-Baker has had type 1 diabetes since she was 17. Her husband sees Syeda Zaidi, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine.
“Dr. Jagasia is well educated and credentialed, but I believe you need a person-to-person connection with your doctor, and let’s face it, that’s not always a given,” said Kendrick-Baker. “Dr. Jagasia is compassionate and very earnest. She’s referred me to specialists when needed. Our relationship is trust, upon trust, upon trust.”
Before she committed to the financial gift, Kendrick-Baker was given a tour of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research Center.
“I already felt good about my decision, but that made me even more sure,” she said. “There’s an incredible amount of work going on there. I went home and told my husband, ‘we’ve done the right thing. We’ve put our assets where they’re going to do the most good.’ It all started with Dr. Jagasia and the trust I have in her.”
Jagasia said she feels “humbled and grateful” by the gift to Vanderbilt made in her honor. “It highlights what a noble profession medicine is, and I’m honored that someone would consider including me in such a personal decision.
“The qualities that make a good doctor are honesty, humility and integrity. It’s important for physicians who treat chronic disease to not only be empathetic, but also objective. It can be a difficult balance for physicians to reach. You should be a peer, coach and friend, but when necessary, be able to step outside of those roles and say ‘as your doctor, this is what I think,’” Jagasia said.
But she emphasized that the care provided in Vanderbilt’s Eskind Diabetes Center is a team effort with highly trained subspecialists, nurse practitioners, certified diabetes educators and dietitians playing equally important roles in the care of patients.
Jagasia said she is fortunate to have long-term relationships with her patients because she treats them through all of the phases of their lives. “I often see patients through pregnancy, child bearing, acute illness, personal challenges and through the ups and downs,” she said.
Nancy Humphrey, (615) 322-4747