Design with Empathy, by Larisa Pender-Healy

Guest post by Larisa Pender-Healy, Middle School Faculty at MVPS. This is post #2 in a series about 7th graders engaging in a design project as biomedical engineers. 


My students were about to embark on a design challenge to create medical solutions that could potentially be used by humans. I couldn’t help but think, how can I mentor them to be better than the medical professionals that I have come across? One memory stood out to me and I thought, we can do better. Almost 12 years ago I lost my older sister, Summer, to a stroke. I remember being escorted by my uncle to board a red eye flight to Philadelphia (UPenn), where my sister had just started Law School. I arrived at a hospital nearby the university, eyes nearly swollen shut from crying, and immediately greeted by my older brother and my mom. The four of us huddled tightly in my sister’s hospital room. As I held Summer’s hand that was the first time I felt powerless against the forces of nature. I remember my mother returning from a small room that was tightly packed with her team of doctors and nurses. She took my arm and pulled me aside to say, do you want to hear the truth? It’s not good. My mother relayed to me that the doctors misdiagnosed my sister’s condition and gave her a spinal tap which rendered her immediately brain dead. The machines were keeping her physical body alive but her soul had left this Earth. She asked me, what would you like to do? The answer was clear. We held the most beautiful celebration of life filled with the people who loved her and a gospel choir to keep everyone’s spirits up. When I reflect on this experience I can’t help but always think that the medical staff could have shown more empathy for our family instead of treating us like another box to check. My students have to be better than them. This experience was the motivation for me to mentor my students to design with empathy.

A powerful way for the students to connect to their project was to hear stories from real humans that have experienced the specific medical challenges they were about to tackle. In just 10 days I pulled together a lineup of guest speakers that agreed to tell their story. Prior to hearing their story I challenged the students to figure out who that individual was as a person, hopefully setting the stage for them to connect with that storyteller. Each class period had the opportunity to listen to one of the below speakers tell their story.

Dr. Rodney Donlan is currently a researcher at the CDC in Atlanta. He is a leading expert in the formation of biofilms on medical devices that are inserted into humans. He found out in his early 20’s that he was born with a heart valve in which two of the three leaflets were fused together. This causes the heart to work overtime and the valves to weaken rapidly. Rodney knew that eventually he would have to get a heart valve replacement. Rodney was somewhat of an expert in his own surgery and chose to get a porcine valve replacement, aka a pig valve. This bioprosthetic valve would reduce the likelihood of biofilm formation.

Pam Barnes, the new executive assistant for the middle school, graciously offered to tell the story of her late brother, Sam. He was a Georgia police officer that specialized in accident investigation. Pam described stories about her brother that left you thinking, I think we would have been friends. Sam called Pam one day to tell her about a strange feeling he was having. Long story short, Sam suffered from a heart attack and received a quadruple bypass. He worked the 3rd shift and had picked up some habits that could have contributed to his heart attack. Sam lived for another 14 years after the surgery. You could say that the surgery saved his life.

Becky Springer is a powerhouse of a human being and also a mother to three Mount Vernon Presbyterian School girls. She contracted Haemophilus influenzae type b (HIB) from visiting a friend in the hospital. This bacteria was able to infect her through a tiny cut she had on her finger. Consequently, the infection was so severe that she had to receive a quadruple amputation. Becky has chosen to get prosthetic legs, but she has not received prosthetic hands. Instead, she has been a proponent for seeking her own solutions to complete daily tasks. She has collaborated with several institutions to create custom wrist bands that she can insert tools into in order to be able to go about her daily life.

Alston Schmeltzer and Parker Corley are two juniors at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. They spoke of their personal experiences with cranial injuries due to sports. Alston shared his story about a mountain biking accident in which he was wearing his helmet but still received a substantial concussion. Parker shared that he had taken his baseball helmet off during a game and a player had slid into his head, causing a severe concussion. This injury left such a mark on him that he has not played baseball since.

I am writing this blog after the fact, so I can tell you that storytelling in real time evoked strong emotions from the students. They were asking questions based in curiosity, sharing their own experiences to establish a connection, and genuinely asking questions to get to know the speakers as human beings. Students that listened to the story of Becky Springer are currently asking for her to return so they can create a custom prosthetic hand just for her. This was not part of the plan but I am so glad that this plot twist occurred. They had listened to her story, connected with her experience, and were already thinking of how might I design with empathy.


Read Post #1 in the series: “Biomedical Engineers in 7th Grade”

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