Med students bring kids inside story on drugs

Medical students teach the inside story on drug abuse

March 10, 1998

There was no fighting and only minimal swearing, but all the other rules, posted above the blackboard in bold black and yellow letters, were grossly violated. Students were not speaking in their "inside voices." They neither stayed in their seats nor raised their hands. In fact, most were sprawled over clusters of desks, firing questions at the instructors, pushing as close as they dared.

For almost 90 sixth graders at Murray Language Academy, a Chicago public school near Kimbark and 53rd Street in Hyde Park, May 21, 1998 was not a normal day. The situation at Robert Healy School in Bridgeport, two weeks earlier, was identical. Instead of their usual teachers, 12 University of Chicago medical students took over each school's three classes of 11- and 12-year-olds.

The medical students were there to explain the effects of drug abuse--why these youngsters ought to think at least twice when they are first tempted to try alcohol or cigarettes or any of the other substances that will inevitably come their way in the next few years. This topic is virtually guaranteed to bore the jaded daylights out of any modern sixth grader. They've heard it all before.

But they've never seen it quite this way.

The medical students, with close faculty supervision, have crafted a three-part program--distinct one-hour sessions spread over three visits--designed to reach children in grades five through seven. Day one is basic human anatomy; day three is resisting peer pressure; but day two is the clincher. It features what the Chicago Tribune described as "the storytelling remains of dead drug and alcohol abusers": blackened lungs of smokers, cirrhotic livers of tipplers, as well as multiple-drug damaged hearts and brains. The medical students present normal, healthy organs side by side with the diseased organs for comparison.

It's too soon to assess the long-term effects of this program, but the short-term response is promising. "It can be hard to get and keep these children's attention," says Mrs. Otterman, a sixth-grade teacher at Murray School. "But the medical students do a wonderful job. I wish these students would listen to me like this," she adds, pointing to a group of seven who are taking in every word medical student Michelle DeVito, cancerous lung in gloved hand, has to say about cigarettes.

Actually, only six are paying attention. A young fellow named Arturo, dressed all in black--the biggest, toughest-looking kid in the class--has his back turned, his head down, a green tint spreading over his face. "Mrs. Otterman," he moans. "I don't want to see this."

"You just look away and listen, then," she advises. Then, in the an expression of complete confidence, Mrs. Otterman leaves the room.

She has entrusted her class to the Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) project, the brainchild of a group of Pritzker Medical School students. About 10 years ago, several University medical students began occasionally visiting schools to talk to kids about drug abuse in a loose, informal way. Then in 1995, two first-year students--Charles Samenow and Eric Berkson--began to pull together a formal curriculum and enlist more and more of their classmates. In 1995-96, the ASAP team visited five schools, meeting with 405 students. This year those numbers have more than doubled: ASAP team members met with 1,109 students at 10 schools, providing a total of nearly 30 hours of instruction time, 12 teachers at a time.

Samenow points out, "That's 9,540 medical student volunteer teaching hours to date"--a notable achievement, considering the time pressures these students face. "It's never easy, especially late in the quarter, to get 12 medical students together for an hour," says Pritzker first-year Bryan White, who's being groomed to take over some of the program's administrative duties. "That's the biggest hurdle we face in doing more schools."

On the other hand, it's great fun. The medical students have a fabulous rapport with the kids, and the kids--OK, maybe not Arturo--love it. "They wouldn't let us leave!" said Holly Leitzes, who was the last instructor allowed to escape the classroom.

About 40 current medical students have helped teach the course so far, but "there's a core of about 20," said White. And now, the idea has begun to spread. Last winter, Berkson, Samenow and colleagues pulled together the curriculum into a 100-page manual, which the American Medical Student Association has adopted for use at medical schools around the country. This March, to kick off the expansion, Samenow arranged for nearly 50 students from several U.S. medical schools to present a trimmed-down version of the ASAP program at his alma mater, Glasgow Middle School outside Washington, D.C., as part of AMSA's national convention.

"This is a truly wonderful program," said Bennett Leventhal, Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry and the group's faculty advisor. ASAP has caught on nationally, he said, for several reasons. "The material is thoughtfully organized, specific and clear, yet not overtly judgmental, which makes it believable for children and adolescents. The presentation is appropriately paced and exceedingly graphic. And the presenters are knowledgeable and sincere yet committed and approachable, close enough in age--and attire--to relate well to middle-school students."

"The funding helps, too," says Samenow, as he focuses on the future. Grants from the Irving B. Harris Foundation, AMSA, and the University of Chicago Hospitals enabled the students to gather teaching materials and print the curriculum books.

But the real reward comes from their pupils. "I think these guys were the most fun yet," said Rebecca Henick immediately after the Murray School visit. "Didn't they ask great questions?"

Even Arturo slowly, reluctantly perked up, once his visiting instructors moved past the lung and liver to the heart. "That's better," Mrs. Otterman told him. "You pay attention and look when you can, Arturo. You might need to know this."

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