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Patient-centered care is a term often used in health care to describe a collaborative relationship between care teams, patients and families. It is the goal of many health care providers, the type of relationship that occurs only when trust is fully developed.

For medical students learning the trade, there are right and wrong answers to most of the questions they encounter. These symptoms match that disorder, or this medication cannot be given to that type of patient. While there is much to learn about the science of medicine from the pages of a textbook or within the walls of the classroom, it is hard to replicate the hands-on experience gained during direct patient care. Often times, the best lessons come from long days and nights spent compassionately caring for patients, listening to feedback, patiently answering questions and validating the feelings of those they care for.

“It’s one of those things that you’re taught in medical school to listen to patients and their families because it really is shared decision making,” said third-year Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University student Jennifer McMains. “But then when you get in the moment, there’s so much going on and it’s very easy to think that you know medically what’s best. But that’s not the way we practice medicine. If the family feels strongly, then listen because they’re with their loved one every single day, every minute.”

McMains learned firsthand the importance of patient-centered care when she met Carnie and Melody Hedgepeth in June 2022 during one of the most difficult periods of their lives.

Carnie, who serves as the director of emergency services for Beaufort County and as a pastor at Arthur Christian Church, was out for a summer ride on his motorcycle when he was involved in a serious accident. He was hit by an oncoming driver and thrown from his bike, eventually landing on the roof of the car. Despite wearing a helmet, the accident left him with multiple facial injuries and a brain bleed that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. With Melody by his side, Carnie spent more than a month in ECU Health Medical Center where they quickly found an expansive support system.

“A lot of people in the (emergency room) know him and people surrounded us with love and prayers,” said Melody. “We got through that first night thanks to everyone in the ER.”

It was in the ER during her surgery rotation where McMains would first meet the Hedgepeths.

“We would go in as a team of doctors to check and provide updates on the plan,” McMains recalled. “Melody was constantly asking ‘Can we be doing anything more?’ or ‘Are there better ways for us to position his feet?’ Things like that seem small but she was always looking at the six-months, one-year outcome and always believing that he would recover. That showed me a lot because I would go into the next person’s room and there wouldn’t be a person to advocate.”

For the Hedgepeths, the attention and care they received left a lasting impression.

“From my standpoint, that’s the most important thing, knowing that the person who is calling the shots cares,” said Carnie. “It means so much when you know that the person cares.”

Carnie, Melody and McMains were reunited April 6 at the Hilton in Greenville during the Legacy Teachers Celebration, a tradition presented by Brody and ECU Health that gives students a chance to honor a patient they met during third-year rotations who taught lessons about care, compassion and communication they will take with them into their careers as physicians.

Crowd photo of attendees at the Legacy Teachers 2023 event.

In total, 20 third-year medical students shared their stories at the luncheon, which featured gift baskets, a photo station and remarks from ECU Health and Brody leaders. At the end, legacy teachers placed custom pins on the students’ white coats to commemorate the significance of the occasion and serve as a reminder of the lessons learned – lessons that they will carry with them through their medical careers.

“As physicians, these stories fuel our hearts and purpose for servant leadership in our pursuit of medicine,” said Dr. Christina Bowen, ECU Health chief well-being officer. “The connections we make with patients help us learn the art of practicing medicine. We’re here to honor these sacred relationships and celebrate our legacy teachers.”

Third-year Brody student Karen Semaan shared her experience with former patient Aidan Mummert and his grandparents. Semaan got to know them well while on the pediatric hematology-oncology rotation. At first, the care team was unsure of the cause of Mummert’s illness. They visited Mummert and his family often to ask more questions and run more tests. Despite the uncertainty, the family and care team developed a light-hearted and fun relationship. When doctors finally determined the cause of the infection, the care team celebrated with joy alongside the family during Mummert’s discharge.

Semaan said the relationship she developed with Mummert and his family was a reminder of her “why” as a future physician.

“Talking with Aidan and his grandmother reminded me, even though medicine and medical school is hard, even though you’re tired and your emotional reserves are low, you can get energy from people,” Semaan said. “You can get love and compassion from them that you can then give back and share with other patients that you see that day.”

The Legacy Teachers Celebration is an important partnership between ECU Health and Brody. The education that medical students receive at Brody, combined with the experiences gained within the ECU Health clinical setting, provides a full spectrum of knowledge that prepares them to deliver compassionate care to the patients they will serve.

“Today is one of the greatest days because we get to celebrate the relationship between our student doctors and their patients,” said Dr. Amanda Higginson, associate dean for student affairs at Brody. “Together, Brody and ECU Health have a shared responsibility to provide both healing and learning. Our legacy teachers help us do that in ways that go beyond just the classroom setting.”

Dr. David Eldridge, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Brody and Brian Floyd, chief operating office at ECU Health and president of ECU Health Medical Center, provided remarks at the event. Like the students, they shared their deeply personal stories of important lessons they learned as students. The speakers shared common themes, especially around the importance of positive, trusting relationships between patients and care teams.

“All across health care, and especially here at ECU Health, there incredible people gathered around others who are in-need of care,” said Floyd. “We’ve chosen this work because it is so meaningful. We are able to make a difference in the lives of so many because of the beautiful relationship between these students and these patients. Today is a reminder of why we do what we do.”