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For the past eight years, a Perelman School of Medicine program has brought first-year Medical students outside of the classroom and into the lives of patients.

The program, called LEAPP — Longitudinal Experience to Appreciate Patient Perspectives — pairs two students with one patient suffering from a chronic illness. It is mandatory for all first-year Medical students, and lasts for 18 months.

“This is an opportunity for students to learn about the lived experience of patients whose medical needs are infinite,” said Associate Professor of Medicine and LEAPP Faculty Director Horace DeLisser. “It’s about observing, listening, learning about their stories and daily struggles.”

The students and patients are paired blindly, “but we are able to ‘choose an illness’ according to our interests or previous personal experiences,” explained first-year Medical student Kimon Ioannides, who was recently matched with his LEAPP patient but hasn’t yet met her.

Once students and patients are paired together, the students are mostly left to drive the conversation, DeLisser said.

Other than a few required written assignments, “they want you to explore an open relationship without influencing you,” added third-year Medical and doctoral student Yun Rose Li.

With this platform in place, even students who choose to only do the minimal requirement will learn about the long-term care of patients, Ioannides said.

On the other hand, sometimes relationships will reach well beyond the program’s goal of promoting the development of medical humanism — for both the students and the patients.

Deborah Melnick — who runs her own stationery company — decided to participate in LEAPP as a patient about three years ago.

“I just figured I’d talk to some first-years,” said Melnick, who was paired with Li. Melnick was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — a chronic, progressive disease that causes cells in one’s body to attack neurons — seven years ago.

“I woke up one day and I had horizontal double vision,” she said, adding that right after she was diagnosed “my entire life was changed.”

Through their experiences with LEAPP, Li and Melnick became close, even outside of Penn.

The spring after they first met, Li was inspired to walk alongside Melnick at a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“That happened to be the first year I couldn’t make it even one round,” Melnick said.

Li stayed behind with Melnick as her team continued walking.

“I realized it was the beginning of the next stage of my disease, and [Li] was the only person beside me at that moment,” she said.

As they sat down in the shade, “I just told her how I thought she was the bravest person that I knew,” Li recalled. “The disease could not take that away from her.”

The LEAPP program prepares students to form similar long-lasting relationships with patients, which DeLisser said is important once students become physicians.

“I have patients that have been with me for almost the length of my career,” DeLisser said. “There’s a different quality to those relationships, an element of friendship.”

As Ionnides reflected on what he expects to get from his LEAPP experience, he hopes he will “learn to identify non-directly medical needs of patients.”

For Li, LEAPP has deepened her commitment to medicine beyond wanting to help people. “Of course I want to help my patients,” she said. “But I also want to be a doctor even when I can’t help.”

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