We stayed in touch for several years. I wrote my college entrance essay about him. By the time I decided to go to medical school — a few years after getting a journalism degree and working as a journalist — we had already lost touch. But my emotional bond with him remained strong. I remember promising to myself that I would do for others what Benirschke had done for me.And I did. I started sharing my story with young patients, rooting them on and giving them hope. I volunteered for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and became its first Rising Star recipient. It became clear to me in medical school that I could make a real difference in how doctors communicate with patients by combining my passion for journalism and medicine with my life experience. My two passions melded when I became the medical director for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, training doctors and medical students nationally to communicate with empathy and clarity.I left the Alda Center in 2017 after nine years to accept a position as dean of a novel communications program at the new Texas Christian University and University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine in Fort Worth. The school’s mission is to train generations of empathetic scholars.
Stuart Flynn, M.D., our founding dean, envisioned a medical school where students would excel in communication and become life-long learners. Yes, they will have medical degrees, and communication skills will make them better doctors. He brought me and my team here to develop the curriculum we call the Compassionate Practice. It is not an add-on or one class. It is embedded into all classes and a pillar of the school. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.Leaving Stony Brook was a very difficult decision for me. I was a lifelong New Yorker staring at the Trinity River and perfecting how to say y’all. I had learned so much from Alan Alda and pinched myself every day. (I used to watch MASH during many of my hospital stays.) We used improvisation to train doctors to listen and connect. We focused on avoiding jargon at all costs. We encouraged the art of storytelling to develop common ground and relate to patients.Sometimes, late at night, I had my doubts about moving to Fort Worth. But then, something magical happened.The TCU chancellor’s advisory council, alumni and parents of current students were invited to learn about our new medical school. I had been on campus seven months already. I greeted the group and spoke about our plans for the communication training to be threaded throughout all four years of medical school. I told them that the faculty will be expected to be trained in the same curriculum and model the behavior.The next day one of my colleagues sent out a group email about a conversation she had with a TCU father who had arrived late and missed my presentation. He heard snippets of the medical school’s plans for training empathetic scholars, and it resonated with him. He said he wanted to help. My colleague told me this father was a former football player who suffered from a life-threatening intestinal disease and dedicated his life to telling his story and working to transform the patient experience. He was a leader in the patient-engagement movement, she wrote.”Is this Rolf Benirschke, the former kicker for the San Diego Chargers?” I typed back. I knew it was him. He made such an indelible impact on my life and he had gone on to inspire so many others. It turns out that his son goes to TCU and he wanted to be a part of our new medical school.This chance reunion with Benirschke was the moment that I realized why a girl from the Bronx landed in Texas. Three important men influenced my destiny: My father and his use of story to relate to people; Alda and his character Hawkeye, an endearing trauma surgeon on MASH; and Benirschke. My father showed me how the use of story connects people, Benirschke gave me the courage to tell my story, and Alda taught me how to tell it.I have been through 21 more surgeries in over 30 years. I like to think my resilience was lit by a kind football player so many decades ago. Pieces of Benirschke’s story became my own. And now I teach doctors and medical students the importance of listening to their patients and sharing their stories.We all become patients, some sooner than others, and we must bring that knowledge into the relationship we create with our patients. We remember those special people who took the time to stop, to listen, to nod, to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, to tell us we are special, to share their stories, and to inspire.Evonne Kaplan-Liss, M.D., M.P.H., is the assistant dean of Narrative Reflection and Patient Communication for the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine in Fort Worth. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.