Open Eyes and Hearts

Students reflect on real-world introduction to oncology

screen grab of 12 students on video call

Poussaint Prematriculation Summer Program participants attending a teleconference forum

For 50 years, the Poussaint Prematriculation Summer Program (PPSP) at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has given incoming Harvard Medical School students from underrepresented groups an opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of science and medicine before starting classes.

The format of this year’s program may have changed—becoming all-virtual because of the coronavirus crisis—but the spirit of learning and professional apprenticeship was fully intact.

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At a teleconference forum on July 24, the 12 participants spoke about their experience with the program and what they will take from it as they begin their medical education.

The students had spent the previous two weeks learning about cancer care and research from Dana-Farber clinicians and scientists and began their HMS degree programs during the first week of August.

In her opening remarks, Andrea Reid, director of the HMS Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs (ORMA) and associate dean for students and multicultural affairs at HMS, thanked Dana-Farber faculty and others who led and administered the program.

“You are the bedrock of the PPSP,” she said. “As lecturers, workshop leaders and lunchtime speakers, you put the same thoughtfulness and enthusiasm into the virtual experience that were the hallmarks of PPSP in its more traditional format.”

Origin story

The PPSP was created in 1970 by Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry, emeritus, and founding director of ORMA at HMS, to give underrepresented students an opportunity to take science courses the summer before their first year in medical school and gain exposure to laboratory research.

By 2016, it had evolved into an oncology-focused program with courses, seminars and virtual clinical experiences led by HMS and Dana-Farber faculty. Now co-sponsored by Dana-Farber and ORMA, the PPSP is supported by the Richard and Natalie Jacoff Breast Oncology Fund in honor of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

“One of the reasons Dana-Farber became involved in this program is our desire to diversify the workforce in oncology in general and DFCI in particular, taking advantage of the excellence of students entering HMS who will be based in the Longwood area and who can easily become engaged in our research and clinical activities,” said Robert Mayer, faculty associate dean for admissions at HMS, faculty vice president for academic affairs at Dana-Farber and an administrator of the PPSP.

Life lessons

In their reflections, students spoke about how the program had changed their perceptions of cancer and broadened their understanding of its impact on patients and families.

“We had the privilege of learning about both the pathophysiology of cancer and the real-life experience of a cancer diagnosis and treatment from patients,” said Angela Marie Mercurio, who graduated from the University of Nebraska.

“I found myself questioning what cancer means for … people who feel like their entire lives are upended by a single word, a diagnosis. I also found myself thinking about the power that physicians hold in delivering this life-changing information. The responsibility that a physician has to hold a patient’s history, family, dreams, purpose and experience in balance with the finality of a diagnosis that can change it all.”

Arinzechukwu Nwagbata, a native of Nigeria and a graduate of the University of Texas, also found himself thinking about the role of the physician, as well as the molecular intricacies of cancer.

“Illnesses may affect the patient’s family as much as the patient, and it’s left to a physician to be sensitive to the needs and worries of a patient’s family,” he said. “In oncology, families often find themselves worrying about the patient, the possibility of the cancer’s predisposition to other family members and the alarming costs of health care.”

Nearly all the participants spoke of their admiration for the patients they’d met, their fortitude in the face of a difficult diagnosis.

“Interacting with the patients, listening to their stories and observing how they respond to their diagnosis was priceless,” said Trinity Russell, a graduate of Wesleyan University.

“Even when their condition was seemingly unfavorable, the patients were filled with admirable levels of hope. Of all the moments I experienced during the past two weeks, perhaps the most memorable one occurred when the mother of a young patient shared an image of beads on a string. Every bead represented a procedure or cancer milestone the child endured. I was shocked by the length of the string, especially since the patient was only a few years old. The image of all the treatments strung in succession is one that I will hold close to my heart,” Russell said.

Adapted from a DFCI Online article.