UC Irvine medical students wrap up year of learning from senior mentors

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Dominic Cestoni shares a laugh with UC Irvine first-year medical student Nina Narasimhalu during an October visit at Cestoni's home. He is helping young med students learn how to better deal with older patients through a new program at UCI.

The first year of a program that teams up first-year UC Irvine medical school students with senior citizens has wrapped up. The students and seniors celebrated the end with a recent luncheon in Santa Ana, where they talked about what they learned together.

The UCI medical students spent the last few months visiting their senior partners and going with them to doctors’ appointments. They capped off the school year by doing something fun with their seniors – from a big family dinner to swimming to bowling, senior’s choice.

The idea of the grant-funded program is to shatter misconceptions that first-year med students might have about caring for seniors.

Med student Marcella Torres says it was an incredible experience. "Really, in working with my senior partner, I really saw that it’s not just him that I’m working with. I’m also having a great relationship with his wife," Torres says. "And it was really interesting to see that when they go to his health care appointments and they think about how he can live his life and how he can deal with medications and specialists, it takes two people. So that’s really what I’ve learned from them, that they’re such good partners and that good health and good health care takes more than one person in this system that’s so complicated."

Torres says she’ll bear that in mind when she’s a doctor and dealing with people who might not have the resources or support they need to successfully maneuver through the health care system.

We met Nina Nirasimhalu a few months ago, at the beginning of the program. Her senior mentor is a 96-year-old Italian immigrant with several health issues.

"He made a point to emphasize to us, like, just to be able to listen to the older patients, to be able to be kind and caring and just being genuine with them and just taking the time to listen to them," Nirasimhalu says. "And so I feel like the program really drove that point home to me."

And Nirasimhalu says she learned from 96-year-old Dominic Cestoni that to be a good physician, she needs have more than just medical smarts. The skills to offer emotional and friendly support are important, too.

First-year med student Cassidy Vuong was also teamed with Cestoni. She says he really emphasized the need to listen.

"You kind of have to get the whole story behind it for a lot of these seniors because, you know, they come in with their illnesses and their problems, but there’s also back stories to everyone. Like he’s also got a family issue and he’s got issues with his caretaker," Vuong says. "So you’ve got to figure out every layer and try to work around him. And so you have to know the whole picture."

Cestoni says he thinks his “girls” Nina and Cassidy both learned a lot. He says they really seemed interested in what he had to say.

"I’ve been through six generations. I can see the country growing with each generation. Now to explain that to the kids is not easy because they don’t know what I’ve seen. But they believe me, OK?" Cestoni says. "So they’re learning a lot about what we went through to get in the world today."

Cestoni says his two first-year med students already asked him if they can come back to visit.

"Of course, I have a trick," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "I cooked Italian for them the last time and I’d cook Italian for them again." Cestoni laughs.

That’s the kind of med student-senior relationship that UC Irvine geriatrics professors hope will help transform today’s med students into tomorrow’s comprehensive and caring doctors.

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