At age 80, retired Chicago physician and educator Dan Winship is getting a bittersweet last chance to teach about medicine—only this time he’s the subject as well as the teacher. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Winship is giving a young medical student a close-up look at a devastating illness affecting millions of patients worldwide.
The two are part of a “buddy” program pairing doctors-to-be with dementia patients. The program was pioneered at Northwestern University and has been adopted at a handful of other medical schools.
Winship and his “buddy,” first-year medical student Jared Worthington, are building a friendship—dining together, visiting museums, chatting about Winship’s medical career and Worthington’s plans for his own.
Besides offering students a unique perspective on a disease they’re likely to encounter during their careers, the programs give patients a sense of purpose and a chance to stay socially engaged.
The programs also help erase the stigma of Alzheimer’s and are laudable for introducing students to medical opportunities related to aging and dementia, said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of the Alzheimer’s Association.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is usually a cruel blow. “You can't remember anything,” Winship said, sometimes faltering to find the right words. “You lose your ability … to keep your wits about you.”
But Winship sees the buddy program as a chance to meld his loves of medicine and teaching.
“Everyone in the buddy program is very committed to understanding that people at this stage of any kind of dementia still need to live and enjoy life,” said Winship’s wife, Jean. “Alzheimer’s is not Dan, it’s just a disease that he has. And so, that was huge for us … realizing we have a lot of living to do here.”
Worthington, whose grandmother also is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, says he hopes being a “buddy” will “inform how I interact with patients and hopefully treat them with more compassion and understanding.”
During a recent visit to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, he and Winship bantered as they watched dolphins leaping in an indoor pool, and wondered at the anatomy of colorful specimens in an ethereal jelly fish exhibit.
“I’m so fond of Jared because we talk together, we talk the same language,” Winship said. “He is a very good student, he’s learning and learning, learning and that means everything to me.” Winship hopes the program will train a new generation of doctors to find new treatments “so we can do away with that stinking disease.”
For him, though, just hanging out with Worthington “is the best part of all.”