Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics

Life-giving lessons

Donors plant seeds that grow humanities and ethics education, locally and abroad

The Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the UT Health Science Center is developing competent and compassionate future physicians through its myriad educational opportunities in medical ethics and professionalism, community service learning, global health and literature and art, as each relates to medicine and the patient experience.

Ruth Berggren, M.D., professor and director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics, said community support helps make these learning opportunities possible.

“It is because of generous donors and foundation support that our program is so unique in all of its offerings,” Dr. Berggren said. “Students are eager to participate in courses that lead them to a solid understanding of medical ethics and humanitarianism because this is a step toward medicine as a calling. They see firsthand the social determinants of health and the context in which illness arises and affirm the value of expressing empathy for their patients, no matter where they come from. Students are ready to translate these values into practice after they graduate, whether it is in San Antonio, abroad or in any community they’ve chosen to serve.”

$300,000 creates Cheever Family Endowment

This year, a new gift of $300,000 from Charles E. Cheever Jr. and his family, will support the curriculum of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics. Cheever is a longtime supporter of the UT Health Science Center and co-chair of the center’s Advisory Council.

The gift was initiated by Cheever’s six children who wanted to make a gift to the center in their father’s honor. Each contributed $25,000. Touched by his children’s gesture, Cheever matched the gift, thereby establishing the Cheever Family Endowment.

“I am humbled and honored by my children’s consideration and generosity,” Cheever said. “And I am very proud to join them in supporting the teaching of ethics in medical school. This outstanding education is vital for generations of health care providers who will care for the people of our communities.”

Transforming lives

Last summer, Richard Usatine, M.D., assistant director of humanities education in the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics, traveled with second-year medical students Amanda Lipsitt and M. David Meyer and six other students to Ethiopia. Consequences of the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years were evident in the village of Aleta Wondo where they stayed and worked. “In addition to a host of ailments, we saw more patients this year suffering from malnutrition, many with swollen bellies or emaciated bodies,” Dr. Usatine said. They treated about 740 patients in one week. If they hadn’t, some may have lost their lives.

In a health clinic in Aleta Wondo, Amanda Lipsitt, a second-year medical student, examines the swollen hand of little Tirfinish. The child’s grandmother, Shuna, helps calm the child so she can receive treatment for the life-threatening infection affecting her hand.

Growing my passion
By Amanda Lipsitt, MS-2

Amanda was interviewing villagers for a health survey when she met Tirfinish and her grandmother.

The little girl’s hand was so swollen that it looked like she was wearing a Mickey Mouse glove. I was so concerned I could barely concentrate on the survey. I took photos to show Dr. Usatine.

He said she might die without medical care, so my team and I brought antibiotics and painkillers to the child that day and urged a visit to the clinic the next morning.

When Tirfinish arrived at the clinic, Dr. Usatine diagnosed a bacterial abscess involving most of her hand. She needed surgical drainage to save her hand, and possibly her life. He numbed the hand and cut into the abscess with a sterile scalpel. The girl screamed but calmed down when Dr. Usatine offered a banana from his backpack. She ate it as her wound was dressed.

Until we left Aleta Wondo, we led twice-a-day visits to Tirfinish’s home, bringing medication and fresh bandages. No longer listless, Tirfinish was transformed into a normal, playful child by the time we left.

This experience has deepened my passion for working in underserved areas, globally and in my own community.

M. David Meyer, a second-year medical student, shares a joyful moment with 7-year-old Ermias in Aleta Wondo.

Understanding compassion
By M. David Meyer, MS-2

It was early morning and, amidst the crowd of people, our medical team spotted an older woman carrying a very young infant. As she approached us, we quickly noticed that on the baby’s neck was a mass about the size of a grapefruit. The baby was obviously in distress, so we immediately took her into the clinic and placed her in front of Dr. Usatine.

After careful preparation, he numbed the skin over the abscess as the child let out a roaring scream. An incision was made over the neck and pus poured out.

I felt terrible, caught in between trying to apply pressure to the incision and attempting to calm the baby’s reeling emotions. In the end, the abscess, along with the cup or two of pus, was removed and the child seemed content.

I was amazed that, in a place with such limited resources, we were able to help. It was as simple as some anesthetic, a scalpel and gauze to save something so precious – a child’s life. Only now do I understand the true meaning of humility and empathy.

Gifts make education possible

Amanda’s and David’s accounts are just two of hundreds that students and faculty at the UT Health Science Center experience through the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics Global Health Curriculum. During the last four years, the center has provided 204 students the opportunity to serve communities across the globe in places such as Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and India. From 2004 to 2011, student participation has risen from 20 to nearly 70 per year, which reflects new courses in global health. These efforts are designed to promote sustainable improvements in health care and allow students to experience providing care in resource-poor settings.

Students participate in medical rotations, mobile health clinics and educational programs to help communities address common, preventable conditions and organize their health care resources.

“These trips began seven years ago, thanks to the generosity of Katy Piper and her family, through the Christ is our Salvation Foundation, who funded the first trip to Vellore, India,” Dr. Berggren said. “This trip planted the seed for what has rapidly grown into our dynamic Global Health Curriculum today. Since then, many generous donors, including members of our Advisory Council and others, make these educational opportunities possible.”

Dr. Berggren said community support allows the curriculum to continue to expand. The newest course, the Longitudinal Global Health Enrichment Elective, which was added this year, is full to capacity with 75 first- and second-year medical students enrolled and 36 on the waiting list.

“Caring for persons living in extreme poverty whether at home or abroad is a life-changing experience for the students,” Dr. Usatine added. “This builds compassion and empathy and teaches students the value of caring even before they gain the clinical knowledge in later years.”

For more information and to support the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics, call 210-567-0028 or e-mail

Sheila Hotchkin contributed to this story.

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