She calls them her "miracle men and women," the Weill Cornell doctors who saved her from a stroke and figured out how to manage her recovery as she grappled with other, longstanding health issues. But Jennifer Harmon knew that her experience in the healthcare system had provided her with equally important wisdom — that of a patient — and she's now sharing it with the medical college's doctors in training.
Harmon, the subject of Episode 3 of the online video series Inside Medicine at Weill Cornell, was flattered when her internist, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine Dr. Keith LaScalea, asked her to mentor students as part of the Longitudinal Educational Experience Advancing Patient Partnerships (LEAP) program. The program became a mandatory part of the medical school curriculum last fall in order to expose students to patient care over time, their psychosocial support, and to barriers to their health. "I consider it a huge compliment to be invited to join," says Harmon, a New York actress who has worked in theater for decades. "I was on board immediately. You need to develop every aspect of your humanity to be a good doctor.
"Being a patient, I was thrilled with the idea of a medical school going back and looking at what happens when a doctor and a patient go into a room together and the door is shut," says Harmon, 71, who has battled breast cancer, chronic swelling known as lymphedema, a hip replacement and immune suppression from a kidney transplant. "What is that relationship? What was the patient looking for, what was the doctor looking for? What does it mean to really listen to you, to really see you? Which I would think as a doctor, if I'm going to treat you, I need all the information I can get on every level."
Harmon brings memories of both positive and negative interactions with physicians to her work with students Peter Chamberlin '18, Christopher Reisig '17, Sam Woodworth '16, and Justin Granstein '15. (Newer students are paired with those farther along in their studies, providing a peer mentorship component.) While she once had to ask a doctor at another institution to talk with her from her hospital bedside, rather than from the door to the room, Harmon praises Dr. LaScalea and her neurologist, Assistant Professor of Neurology Dr. Halina White, for making eye contact with her while they take notes on their computers. They and her nephrologist, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and Medicine in Clinical Surgery Dr. David Serur, have additional qualities that make their relationships effective at promoting her wellbeing: compassion, empathy, and the ability to listen.
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She views them — and ideally, all doctors — as her partners in care.
"The doctors at Weill Cornell can tell me their expertise," she says. "They are very good at imparting information to help me understand — they take the time to help me understand. Since the stroke, things are harder for me sometimes to grasp the first time around. They're willing to explain it again.
"But it's a partnership," she says. "I have to be on board with them. I have to take my medications. I have to do my exercises. I have to try and eat well. I have to get enough sleep. I have to not do so much in a day. That's what I mean about a partnership."
The approach is working. Though doctors are monitoring her blood pressure and she is due for a second hip replacement this fall, Harmon describes her health as "excellent." She'll return to the stage this summer in a production of "Outside Mullingar" at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont.
Harmon is an effective patient mentor for several reasons, says Dr. LaScalea, who directs LEAP. She receives care from across the Weill Cornell-affiliated campus, is willing to allow students to be present at her appointments, and to share her experiences with them, he says. "She's the ideal LEAP teacher," Dr. LaScalea says. "She is very interested in giving back. She really cares about the next generation of doctors and how they're educated. She's kind and generous with her time. Unfortunately she has multiple diagnoses, but that is very educational for the students to see."
Harmon is equally impressed with her student mentees. And she's confident that their intelligence, curiosity and kindness will come through when they begin practicing medicine themselves.
"They're going to be studying anatomy and all that, but when they walk into a textbook they're looking at, it's an actual human being whose heart's in trouble, or kidney's shutting down, or they have cancer," she says. "That must be an amazing moment for them, and my hope is that the LEAP program will make that transition not quite so daunting.
"I'm a recipient of the medical field, and now I'm meeting the young men and women who've decided to take this on as a career. And I'm just — I'm in awe," she says. "They really make me stand in awe."