Bringing it home

"I'll never have that preconception of what being sick looks like again"—student Tiffany Connors

- June 27, 2011

Jay Hartman-Berrier and pharmacy student Tiffany Connors were matched for Dalhousie's Health Mentors Program. (Danny Abriel Photo)

Jay Hartman-Berrier figures the chronic conditions that sap her strength on a daily basis stem from a bike accident that happened a lifetime ago.

A member of the Yale cycling team, the then-18-year-old student athlete was training when a car in front of her changed lanes and crashed into her. As she somersaulted over the handlebars and into the curb, she broke her neck in two places.

“I basically karate chopped myself,” she says, matter-of-factly. It wasn’t known if she’d live but she did: gradually learning to walk again and to hold a pen, although she still can’t cough or roll over in bed.

Chronic illnesses


Now in her mid-60s, she believes that brain-stem injury is behind the chronic conditions that have plagued her since middle-age: lupus, fibromyalgia and Raynaud’s disease.
   
After her four decades sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms—on both sides of the border—she’s learned to be the “squeaky wheel” and advocate for herself. Which is why, when she read about Dalhousie’s new health mentors program, she felt she had something to offer and signed up as a volunteer. Anything that would spark health professionals to look at patients as individuals instead of a list of symptoms had to be worth it.
   
The program was initiated last September and involved almost 600 students representing a wide swath of health-care programs from the Faculties of Health Professions, Dentistry and Medicine, including at Dal Med School’s new campus in Saint John, N.B. Small interprofessional teams of students were matched with a mentor, an adult volunteer with a chronic condition.
   
“I’m good for maybe two hours of doing something. It can be very hard to do the grocery shopping or the cooking or whatever,” says Ms. Hartman-Berrier, a recent immigrant to Canada. She continues to travel for work as the director of a small traditional music festival back in her native Connecticut. She and her husband Bob, a Dal employee, also divide their time between Halifax and Southwest Margaree in Cape Breton. The mother of three grown daughters, she loves to garden, weave and sew for her grandchildren.
   
Tiffany Connors, 21, was surprised when she first met Ms. Hartman-Berrier, who now greets her as a friend with a hug at the front door.
   
“I was picturing somebody in a wheelchair, who could hardly speak,” says Ms. Connors, from the small town of Nakina in northern Ontario. “I was taught a valuable lesson from the start; that is, not to have preconceptions about what someone with a chronic condition looks like.”
   
A pharmacy student, Ms. Connors was part of 
team of four; the others in the group studied social work, dental hygiene and physiotherapy. They met at the Hartman-Berriers’ apartment five times – fact-finding missions that turned into family dinners, with Ms. Hartman-Berrier answering the students’ questions as she ladled homemade soup or stew into their bowls and offering seconds.

'We want health professionals to talk to each other'


“For me, that was important: for them to get to know me, certainly, but also to gather around the table and to get know each other and each other’s fields,” says Ms. Hartman-Berrier. “We want health professionals to talk to each other.”
   
Ms. Connors says she’s grateful that the health mentors program was part of her first year at Dalhousie, adding that her interactions with Ms. Hartman-Berrier will forever shape her as an aspiring pharmacist. “It means a lot to me that she has been so open. I have listened and learned so much. And I’ll never have that preconception of what being sick looks like again—it allows me to step back and to have an open mind.”   

Coming over to her mentor’s apartment, and listening to her experiences, Ms. Connors says it has dawned on her that Ms. Hartman-Berrier was saving her daily allotment of energy to spend with the group.
   
“It makes me feel special that she cares so much about the program and wants to make a difference for us. What an amazing gift she’s given us.”


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