When Karen Firus got the life-changing diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) after years of debilitating health challenges, she hoped one day to be able to teach others about what it’s like to live with a chronic illness.
Nearly 20 years later, she’s had that opportunity as a mentor in UBC’s Interprofessional Health Mentors Program (HMP), which brings together patients living with chronic illness and conditions – such as ME, HIV, dementia, and spinal cord injury – or the people caring for them, and gives them the opportunity to share their experiences with students from a range of health disciplines.
“There are many parts of living with a chronic illness that people do not understand, especially when it is an invisible illness [like ME], where there can be a lot of stigma,” says Karen. “This is such an amazing opportunity to help educate students early in their careers about how to listen to and care for people living with chronic illness.”
During the course of the 16-month program groups of four students from different health disciplines are matched with a volunteer mentor. They meet twice a semester, focusing on different topics related to living with chronic illness such as managing and sharing health information, and the role of different health care providers.
The students learn from their mentors not only what it’s like to live with or care for a loved one with a chronic health condition, but also learn from each other, developing a greater understanding of how to provide team-based care.
Claire Liu, a second-year student in UBC’s undergraduate medical program, is one of the students who experienced the value of mentorship with Karen. She credits her experience through the HMP with helping her to better understand how much illnesses differ from one person to another.
“When you picture a patient who is really ill, you often have a picture in your mind of someone in a hospital,” says Claire. “I think it’s so important as a medical student to have your mind opened to the fact that all patients experience their illnesses differently.”
For both Karen and Claire, the benefits of the HMP will extend far beyond what they shared in the program. The two have become friends, and Karen will continue to mentor Claire as she completes her medical training and throughout her career.
“This program gives the students the opportunity and the time to get to know me as a person and not just as a patient,” says Karen. “That’s the whole idea – to help them understand that there is a person behind the illness.”
The Interprofessional Health Mentors Program is an initiative of Patient & Community Partnership for Education, based out of the Office of UBC Health. More than 700 students from the Faculty of Medicine – in addition to students from other UBC schools and faculties including Nursing, Dentistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences – have participated in the Interprofessional Health Mentors Program since it was created in 2011.