Therapy Dogs' Visit to Campus Brings Miller School Students a Joyful Break

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As irresistibly adorable dogs jumped happily among groups of squealing, laughing medical students sitting on the floor of the student lounge, second-year student Christine Nunez explained why the Wellness Advisory Council sponsored the Miller School of Medicine’s third annual Student Wellness Week.

Dr. Hilit Mechaber, right, finds a new friend as Cristina Garcia, assistant director of career services and wellness, looks on.

“The burnout rate among physicians is extremely high, and it starts as medical students,” she said. “We think it’s important to have a specific week dedicated to different ways to help deal with all the stress and anxiety that come with being a medical student.”

An important goal is getting different student groups to collaborate. Second-year students created a Medical Arts Club, which hosted Wellness Week’s first Art Night. “A lot of students like to de-stress by doing more creative things,” said Nunez, a Miamian who has an undergraduate degree from Duke University and is likely headed for a career in psychiatry.

As pet therapy continued in the student lounge on Dec. 9, the student group Lifestyle Medicine was offering tips for “quick healthy meals,” complete with samples, in the third-floor auditorium of the Rosenstiel Medical Sciences Building. The week also featured yoga night, a spin class — both taught by medical students — a session on mindful eating, massages, and a presentation on stress management by Heidi H. Allespach, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical family medicine, medicine and surgery.

The therapy dogs visited campus from the Humane Society of Greater Miami. In another corner of the student lounge, students made holiday cards for patients at Holtz Children’s Hospital at UM/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. The students also served dinner at Camillus House one evening during the week.

Hilit F. Mechaber, M.D., associate dean for student services, had lots of fun with the dogs and is thrilled about the expansion of Wellness Week. “This week highlights the importance of the wellness of our learners, a critical focus of our education program,” Dr. Mechaber said. “Through participation in a variety of events, our students are reminded of the importance of self-care and the value to finding time to nurture themselves.”

First-year medical student Veronica Betancur, left, and neuroscience graduate student Christine Ryan play with the therapy dogs.

Joining Nunez as chairs of Wellness Week are second-year students Kaylie Cullison and Megan Brown. Cullison took a leadership role in Wellness Week because she recognized the stresses of her own experience and wanted to help her fellow students accept and deal with their challenges.

“Wellness, self-care, self-kindness — whatever you want to call it — has become an integral part of who I am as a human being, not just as a medical student, and I am passionate about spreading these tools and resources to other medical students,” Cullison said.

Stuart Slavin, M.D., M.Ed., the senior scholar for well-being at the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, recently visited the Miller School and “talked about how rates of anxiety and depression are much higher among medical students versus age-matched people who are not in medical school,” Cullison said. “He also discussed toxic mindsets/thought patterns that some students develop as a response to the demands that our medical training places on us, and how a good way to change these thought patterns is to first observe the thoughts, and then re-frame them — a main tenet of mindfulness, and a component of cognitive behavioral therapy.

“I think most medical students know the stats about anxiety and depression, but I also think a common mindset is ‘that won’t happen to me.’ … I would argue, from personal experience, that both your happiness levels and your grades will only improve when you make deliberate time for yourself to do non-coursework-related activities that you truly enjoy.”