Hearts in hand: VCU med students find community, stress relief in Project HEART

Zoë Dehmer
Staff Writer

Medical students at the VCU School of Medicine are learning to combat stress and cynicism due to their heavy workload by learning from fellow students and faculty through Project HEART (Healing with Empathy Acceptance Respect and inTegrity).

Dr. Chris Woleben, associate dean of student affairs at VCU’s School of Medicine, explained that the ultimate goal of Project HEART is that “we want students to maintain that sense of humanism and compassion that got them into medicine to begin with.”

Project HEART began nine years ago when Dr. Isaac Wood, the former associate dean of student affairs, noticed a trend among the medical students. He said they seemed to be developing unhealthy personal health habits and regressing to “a state where you become cynical about things” due to the highly demanding workload.

“We were training the humanism out of them,” Wood said.

According to Wood, studies were coming to light at the time that indicated that a very large percentage of practicing physicians wish they had never gone into medicine. The data indicated that the physicians felt like they were trapped by their careers because they had invested so much time, which makes it hard to go back to school to train in a different discipline.

“They work long hours. Eighty-hour weeks takes a toll on you after a while,” Wood said. He explained that the second year of medical school “is like a pressure cooker.”

Although the information is not more difficult to absorb, Woleben explained that it’s the volume of material that makes the difference. He likened the flow of knowledge to “trying to drink out of a fire hydrant.”

Adam Rossi is a second-year medical student at the VCU School of Medicine who is feeling the grind in his day-to-day education.

“Sometimes I make the joke that it feels like the movie ‘Groundhog’s Day,’ like everyday I do the same thing,” Rossi said.

For students like Rossi, Project HEART is an opportunity to socialize, gain support from their community of fellow medical students and faculty, and alleviate some of the monotony and stress of medical school.

During orientation, one activity each new student participates in is their initiation to Project HEART. Students each receive a hand-sewn, palm-sized heart pillow that represents how “from the beginning of medical school … not only are we as advisors holding the hearts of our students in our hands, but also they’re holding the hearts of their patients in their hands,” Woleben said.

“We felt like it was important for the students to have some sort of a tangible object that they could relate to the project,” Wood said. “A lot of students carry them around with them. So on exam day they’ll have their heart in their pocket.”

After the heart-giving ceremony during the first week, students meet eight times per semester for the first two years of school in small groups of six to eight students plus one faculty mentor. In each meeting there is a designated curriculum to discuss topics like personal health, professional practice, residency programs for the future, and patient care.

Because of the small size of the groups, students develop close relationships with their group members and faculty mentors. Some groups go out to dinners or do activities together like bowling and community service projects.

Alongside stress induced by having to absorb so much information, medical students simultaneously have to consider their future as doctors.

“There was a big push that came on about 10 years ago to increase the number of medical students that were being graduated in the United States but they didn’t increase the number of residency positions for them. This year we had over 1,000 medical students that didn’t match into residency programs … so in essence, (they) don’t have jobs,” Wood said. “When that happens the pressure flows backward, in that they really have to perform in school.”

Barbara Saber, a second year student and Project HEART participant, explained that Project HEART helps her to feel like she has a community she can rely on, despite the stressful conditions. “It helps a lot to know that we’re all going through the same stuff,” she said.

“Even if it has to take away two or three hours from studying in one week … it’s a good experience,” Saber said, “because medicine is ultimately not about spending your time in books, it’s about relaying to other people.”

Rossi agreed that Project HEART helps to remind him of his purpose despite the stress.

“I’m doing this because I want to help people,” he said.

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