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The Softer Side of Medical School

Derek MacMath reads to a babyFor Derek MacMath, it’s The Poky Little Puppy. Marybeth Keiser prefers Earthquack! While reading these books is definitely not part of the curriculum for these first-year students at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, it is, in a sense, a part of their education.

MacMath, Keiser, and other students from the School of Medicine volunteer their time reading to premature infants as part of Babies and Books, a new program in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Studies show associations between what babies are exposed to before birth — starting from as early as five months in the pregnancy — and their intellectual development. Soon-to-be moms are encouraged to talk, read, and in general, communicate with their babies while pregnant. But babies born too early lose this important part of their growth. Reading to them helps them gain back what they missed because of their premature birth. 

“These babies can be years behind their peers before they even start elementary school,” said Laura Rubinos, MD, a neonatal-perinatal fellow who worked with members of Neonatology and the CHOP resident advocacy group to create the program. The program also partnered with the Rotary Club of Philadelphia and other community organizations that helped get over 1,000 books donated.

Rubinos said that NICU parents love the idea of reading to their babies, but when they can’t be there, the medical students step in to help. “Their enthusiasm and dedication in an often intimidating and stressful unit gives parents and staff a reason to smile and become more involved in reading and talking to their babies,” she said.

The student volunteers say they’re drawn to the program for many reasons. On a very basic level, it’s a breath of fresh air in a schedule that is filled with taking notes and reading medical textbooks. “Our schedules can get hectic and stressful. This is a great way to have time to relax,” Keiser said.

Yoshi Rothman, another PSOM volunteer in the program, loves the opportunity to work with kids directly, the ability to “form an intimate connection with the baby,” he said. “And it’s realizing the value of prevention instead of learning how to treat a disorder when it’s already happened.”

Though premature, the babies are aware of the interaction. “You can tell they’re listening,” Rubinos said. “Some remain quiet but their vital signs show that they’re in a calmer state. Those who can look around will make eye contact with the reader [although their vision may still be unfocused] while others will try to look at the book.”

The students also learn the importance of treating a patient – no matter how young – as a person. “Throughout our careers, we may have patients unable to respond but they deserve your full attention and enthusiasm,” MacMath said.

Students usually read to babies whose parents are not present, providing more exposure to the human voice and countering the many equipment sounds that surround the babies. But “sometimes parents will ask me to read to their baby and that inspires me,” Keiser said. “It’s a great way to encourage reading.”

“More evidence continues to emerge suggesting that the hospital – and home environment – play a crucial role in the neurodevelopmental outcome of premature infants,” Rubinos said. “It is more important than ever to make the next generation of physicians aware of the positive impact we, as providers, can have to foster rich parent-infant verbal interactions, even before babies go home from the NICU.”

Many of the medical student volunteers are interested in pursuing pediatrics. (Rubinos initially reached out to the PSOM Cornfeld Pediatric Interest Group for volunteers.) Others aren’t quite sure where their medical careers will take them but wanted to be part of this initiative. Dominique Bohorquez heard about the program from an email Keiser sent to the entire PSOM student body and was fascinated to learn that this could make a difference in such an early part of life. She chose to read Winnie the Pooh from the mobile book cart the NICU set up with beginner books and had fun using different voices for the characters. “The baby fell asleep within three minutes but then woke up and gave me a little smile… and then went back to sleep!” she said, laughing. “Maybe it was a coincidence. But it felt good doing something good for them.”

“The NICU is such a special environment,” Keiser said. “And there’s a huge potential to make a difference in this brand new person’s life.” 

Photo caption: Derek MacMath reads to a baby in the NICU as part of the Babies and Books program.

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