Their hearts go out ... and come back humbled

Published 02.10.2021

Nursing & Health Sciences
Physician Assistant
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On the final day of last semester's Diagnostics & Procedural Practices course, physician assistant studies students were given a special assignment: Give away a grocery store gift card.

"The rules were simple," physician assistant instructor Heather S. Dorman explained. "They had 20 minutes to leave the classroom and find a random person who needed the grocery card, engage in conversation and offer the card. The results were humbling and thought-provoking."

When the students returned to class, they were asked to share their experiences and think about the process. They were asked: Did you pass someone else on your journey to find the perfect recipient? Why did you pass that person? What were you looking for? How did you ultimately make your decision?

From left, physician assistant instructor Julie I. Edkin; students Chaela Swink, of Hughesville, Gabrielle E. Moore, of Jersey Shore (also pictured on the phone held by Swink), Alison Filozof, of Williamsport, Amanda Lisi, of Montoursville, Olivia A. Forney, of Williamsport, Damaris A. Diaz, of Willamsport; and instructor Heather S. Dorman."Some students quickly developed a mental list of 'criteria' in an effort to determine the best recipient but quickly abandoned this process as they found it was impossible to do," Dorman said. "Some shared that they studied clothing and outward appearances, while others sought to find physical cues like poor eye contact, sunken shoulders or social isolation. Some students sought students in particular, while some chose Penn College staff/faculty whom they have interacted with in the past and felt could benefit from the act of kindness. Others left campus and ventured into nearby neighborhoods, knocking on random doors."

Sarah M. Rodriguez was part of one such group. They headed off campus in hopes of finding someone who could really benefit from the gift.

“We wanted it to preferably be someone who was experiencing a rough time financially,” she said.

Rodriguez, of West Milton, was struck by the cheerfulness of the man who came to the door they chose: “(He was) as kind and cheerful as a guy can be to three random college students knocking on his door in the middle of the day.”

After the students explained their situation, he shared his own story. A pizza delivery driver, he had been shot several weeks before while he was making a delivery.

“We all knew he was the one when he said that he had been shot, had been in the hospital, had a young son he was taking care of, and had been laid off from work due to his injuries.

“One thing I learned from that man was that even though he had literally been shot, was laid off and didn’t currently have the normal income that he was used to, that did not affect his attitude or the degree of kindness that he treated us with,” Rodriguez continued. “You would have never known he was experiencing hard times from his personality, jokes and bright attitude. One of my brightest memories from the semester was that 10-minute interaction. My group probably enjoyed giving him the card more than he enjoyed receiving it.”

"Unbelievable that they crossed paths with this man by accident," Dorman said.

The grocery gift card assignment stems from a random kindness activity Dorman does with her own children.

"In my youth, my family had many social determinants that shaped our lives, food insecurity being just one of them," the instructor explained. "My children have, thankfully, never experienced those hardships, so I practice random kindness activities with them to develop their humility and compassion for others."

When her oldest daughter, Brooke, was in fifth grade, Dorman placed a gift card in her hands while they were doing the family's weekly food shopping. She asked Brooke to give the card to a random person she thought was "in need."

"She quickly realized that making this determination from physical appearance alone is quite difficult," Dorman recalled. "Feeling a little defeated by not finding the 'right person' in the store, she gifted the card to a woman in the parking lot who was entering the store as we were leaving.  The woman burst into tears, sharing that she had just driven to Muncy from Massachusetts, realizing halfway through the trip that she had left her wallet at home."

Students Cassidy F. Howe (left) of Hughesville, and Constance J. Plankenhorn, of Williamsport, with instructor Dorman.On campus, the PA program makes a conscious effort to dedicate some of its Diagnostics & Procedural Practices class time to “cultural humility” exercises like these, Dorman explained.

When first coined, the term cultural humility was described as a tool to educate physicians to work with culturally, ethnically and racially diverse populations. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is "a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another's culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities."

"Our program has always attracted a beautifully diverse group of students, which provides an exceptional opportunity to pause, engage in deep conversation and learn from each other," Dorman said.

Student Emery J. Fox provided a particularly heartfelt perspective: "The biggest thing to take away from being kind is this: Kindness with conditions is not kindness.

"Being kind isn't about how it makes you feel, or about who deserves your kindness," Fox, a Williamsport resident, explained. "I think it's easy to feel like you want to help those who you think would need it, but the truth is everyone needs a little kindness. And if we are placing conditions on our acts, like 'Do they really need this gift card?' it goes against the very definition of what kindness is – or what kindness should be. And that can be very hard. It's human instinct to want to help those who need it, but I think it's safe to say, right here, right now, in the year 2020, in the middle of an increasingly tense political climate, in the middle of a pandemic that has touched the entire globe in ways we could have never imagined, everyone is deserving of our kindness."

Rodriguez took away a similar lesson from her interaction with the cheerful pizza delivery driver: “It just goes to show, no matter how someone acts, talks, or dresses, you never know their full story! So be kind to everyone because you never know what they’re going through. It can really make a difference.”

"The class discussion was remarkable," Dorman, the instructor, said. "The students were quick to agree: Food insecurity has no predetermined appearance, and there is no cohort or criteria we can depend upon to identify need, especially in the year 2020. Hunger has no bounds, and food-bank lines have surpassed COVID testing lines. Our class takeaway:  If fortune ever finds your life, build a longer table, not a taller fence."

Photos by Tina R. Strayer, coordinator, physician assistant studies