When Sabrina Dowds was told she’d be taking a tour of the Health Sciences building, she never imagined she’d be doing so from the confines of a wheelchair. Alongside eight of her classmates, she lowered herself into a worn, hospital-grade chair and took her first “steps” into someone else’s shoes.
The classroom was filled with laughter, but it was an apprehensive joy. The students knew they could afford to laugh. After all, they’d only be disabled for 12 minutes.
“It was still harder than I thought,” said Dowds, a junior at the Davidson School of Fine Arts. “I couldn’t imagine what that would be like for someone who had to do it permanently.”
That was a running theme throughout Tuesday’s lessons at the Health Science Summer Academy.
From crashing cars in the Driving Simulator Lab to getting dressed with the aid of occupational therapy tools, students learned what it was like to walk (or ride) in someone else’s shoes. Empathy, they learned, was at the heart of all medicine. That was one of the lessons Dr. Sharon Swift desperately wanted her students to learn.
Swift, an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy, said empathy makes for better caretakers. She would know. Before becoming an occupational therapist, Swift worked in special education, caring for children who were more often than not plagued by physical health problems.
“In the field where I worked, a lot of my children were medically fragile,” Swift said. “It was interesting to learn what was going on inside their bodies, and seeing that it was more than just what I saw in the classroom. It helped me to understand them.”
During class, Swift recounted the story of a soldier who’d come home wounded from Iraq. Unable to move, she said, the soldier had felt like a broken man until someone turned to empathy as a motivator.
“He wanted to go fishing more than anything in the world,” said Swift. “After two weeks of feeling like a broken man, he started fighting. He wanted to fish, and within a few months of being horribly wounded, he was sitting in his boat on Clark’s Hill Lake.”
Dowds said the HSSA had given her new insight into the world of health care.
“I’ve definitely realized there are more careers in a hospital than I ever imagined,” she said. “I’ve always loved being in hospitals and seeing the way people care for one another. It’s an environment where someone always needs you.”
While Dowds said she was still considering whether or not she wanted to go into the health care field, she said she would absolutely recommend the HSSA to other students.
“If you’re considering a career in health sciences, this program definitely gives you insight into that,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I hope they continue it.”