Outreach to Medical Students

For medical students like me, school is a challenging experience. At Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the expectations are high and the workload is at times overwhelming.  For example, my recent exams were three hours long and consisted of over 120 questions.  They take place on Mondays, and class starts right back up again on Tuesday morning. There’s just no way to not internalize the stress when so much is expected of you, and I have struggled with that stress myself.  Many of my classmates have as well.  We all try to deal with stress and anxiety on our own, with varying levels of success.  That’s why I am part of the Wellness Initiative in Student Health (WISH) group at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine—to bring these issues to the forefront among students and faculty and provide greater support for the well-being and happiness of the students.

As I spoke to other medical students to see how we might best tackle these issues, several people mentioned attending therapy dog events during final exams at their undergraduate schools.  I thought this was a fantastic idea, and heard from someone at Northwestern Memorial Hospital that Canine Therapy Corps was already providing therapy dogs to the patients there.  I contacted the organization, and they were happy to set up an event with us to help reduce stress during exams.  

On the day of the event, three wonderful dogs arrived with their handlers – a Golden Retriever, an Australian Shepherd, and a Labrador Retriever.  As they walked through the doors, the faces of the students immediately lighted up.  The dogs were swarmed with medical students even before they got inside the room where we were hosting the event!   Attendees spent a lot of time scratching bellies and rubbing heads, and in those moments, they had a new best friend.  It’s amazing how something so simple can bring so much happiness and be so gratifying.  It was also a great opportunity for us to learn about animal-assisted therapy.  Awareness of this fantastic tool went up, and hopefully, when these students are doctors, they will remember what a huge asset it can be for their patients.

I personally had a chance to interact with the dogs as well.  The feeling of love I got back from the therapy dogs just by rubbing their heads was amazing.  In that half hour, I could feel my stress just melting away.  I also chatted with the volunteers about the high standards of obedience and training that it takes to work in Canine Therapy Corps’ animal-assisted therapy programs.  They let me give the dogs some commands, and the high level of training they had was very apparent.  All the dogs were wonderful, and happy to obey commands, or just get a pat on the head or a treat.  

All in all, it was a wonderful counterpoint from the high expectations of medical school.  It was especially helpful since many students were right in the midst of exams, with some even having exams that very afternoon.  I’d taken an exam a few days before this event, and interacting with the therapy dogs helped to erase the stress from the last exam as I started studying for the next one.  While it’s impossible not to feel the stress of medical school exams, the therapy dogs helped us to relax and made an immense difference in everyone’s day.  I heard wonderful feedback on the event from students afterwards, some saying that it was the best part of their whole week!

I want to thank Canine Therapy Corps and its volunteers for hosting this event, and thank all its supporters for making events like this possible through your generous donations.  After seeing what a positive impact therapy dogs had on the medical students, I can’t wait to set up another event like this!

Lukas Streich