Living one week as patient fosters empathy in nursing students

It’s hard to be sick.

That’s the lesson students in professor Cheri Hernandez’s class “Chronicity in Health Care” took from a project which challenged them to adhere for one week to a regimen prescribed for patients living with chronic illness.

“I wanted them to be better nurses,” Dr. Hernandez said Wednesday, after hearing presentations on the student experiences. “Health professionals who have empathy recognize that complete adherence is impossible.”

The students divided into six groups and devised regimens to mimic treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, post-bariatric surgery, chronic kidney disease, and Type 1 diabetes.

Adopting specialized diets, restricted mobility, strict medication schedules, or even mandated rest periods proved difficult. In fact, not one of the students was able to complete the project.

Third-year nursing student Kimberly Mitchell works as a personal support worker at a retirement home, and so was able to access a walker and wheelchair to simulate the experience of late-stage multiple sclerosis. She found that timing posed the greatest challenge.

“Part of our regimen was to get eight hours of sleep a day,” she said. “Between studying, work and family, that’s what I would normally get in two days.”

She said the experience definitely helped her to sympathize with clients.

“You’re producing a better graduating class,” Mitchell said.

One consistent message that Hernandez was happy to hear from the students was that the project is only a taste of what patients must endure.

“I wouldn’t want to think that since they have tried to live by a regimen for one week that they fully shared an illness,” she said. “I was glad to hear them acknowledge they will never know what it is like.”

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