Sascha Gallardo – June 15, 2020
The patients who visit our sites have tons of questions on their mind related to their symptoms, which clinic to visit, the medications they are taking, and the treatment procedures they will undergo. They want a space to find answers as well as comfort from people who truly care.
The Ben’s Friends team, on the other hand, interacts with the members on a daily basis. Everyone has to be equipped with certain skills to become effective at the tasks at hand.
For instance, they have to be good at listening so to speak, to really understand what the patients are trying to say. They need to know how to communicate well especially since the absence of nonverbal cues in online forums can make messages prone to misinterpretation.
Being part of the team certainly helps develop these and other skills over time. With this, Ben’s Friends thought of opening an internship program a few years ago for students in various fields such as medicine, social work, and communications among others.
We are delighted to announce that one of our past interns has successfully finished medical school recently and is on her way to achieving her dream of helping patients.
Melissa, or Meli to us at Ben’s Friends, is a recent graduate from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. She will be starting her residency in Vascular Surgery in Calgary this July.
Like many of the diseases dealt by members of Ben’s Friends, vascular disease is often a chronic problem. Meli finds it both challenging and gratifying to help patients navigate their disease before, during, and for many years after surgery.
Prior to medicine, she was a competitive distance runner and an engineer.
Below is our interview with Meli.
Tell us the story about how and why you became an intern at Ben’s Friends.
I got involved through Seenie, who was my childhood neighbor and lifelong family friend.
Seenie knew I was trying to go to medical school and saw Ben’s Friends as the perfect opportunity to “get my feet wet,” i.e. actually learn from, interact with, and support individuals with chronic diseases.
The experience certainly solidified my belief that I was pursuing the right path!
What stages did you have to go through as part of your training?
This was a few years ago, so there wasn’t necessarily formalized training but more so graduated responsibilities.
I started with greeting new members on the Living with Polyneuropathy site, and then eventually moved into a moderator support role as well as helping with the internship program. I have to give credit to Seenie, though, for developing the awesome training material for new interns!
Tell us about the tasks assigned to you during your internship.
As moderator support, I would go through each of the (then) 30+ Ben’s Friends communities to evaluate new member requests, greet members, and screen discussions to make sure they were safe and supportive.
It shocked and saddened me when I realized how lonely and desperate many of our new members were. It also inspired me to see how supported they felt when they became part of the community, and how some of the members with the most problems were also the most positive.
An interesting but unfortunate fact is that there are individuals who try to get into the communities to take advantage of vulnerable members: scammers, spammers and snake oil sellers make regular attempts at gaining membership.
As a senior moderating intern, it was my job to judge the sincerity and authenticity of requests for membership, which was an excellent learning experience for an aspiring medical student. Through careful, knowledgeable screening, Ben’s Friends members are authentic but also honest and open because they can be anonymous.
Tell us about the important things you learned while you were an intern.
I think the most valuable thing I learned was the difference between sympathy and empathy. It is easy to sympathize with someone’s situation, but it is much harder to put yourself in their shoes.
I found that the more I tried to do just that, the better I could connect with the community members in order to support them.
Any experience that you want to highlight?
Overall, the teamwork, dedication, and compassion on behalf of the Ben’s Friends team made the experience extremely inspiring and rewarding.
The moderator support team went above and beyond to support community members from across the world while often dealing with their own chronic conditions. Talk about grit!
As well, a special shout-out to Seenie and TJ for supporting me through Ben’s Friends and encouraging me to keep applying to medical school.
How has becoming an intern at Ben’s Friends helped you in med school?
Communications was an important class at my medical school where we learned and practiced how to have empathetic, respectful, and culturally-informed conversations with patients. My time with Ben’s Friends gave me a head start!
Who are the students that you think will benefit most from an internship at Ben’s Friends?
Anyone going into any area of healthcare–be it medicine, nursing, physiotherapy, respiratory therapy, you name it–would benefit from this experience.
Anything you want to say to students who are looking for an internship?
Pursue what you are passionate about and not just what will fill your CV.
My time with Ben’s Friends showed me that the will to help others extends beyond an official title of “Doctor/Nurse/etc.”
Listen to and learn from the stories of others, and recognize the privilege of sharing in their journey.