Mentors offer personal lessons on aging for aspiring physicians at MU

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Ezio Moscatelli and Vinh Duong pick out a movie Saturday at Hollywood Theater. Moscatelli, an award-winning biochemistry professor, is partnered with Duong, a first-year medical student, through the Heyssel STEP program that helps to train doctors in geriatric care. In the program, students such as Duong are paired with the elderly for opportunities to discuss aging and do activities together.

COLUMBIA — Ezio Moscatelli once portrayed a 90-something-year-old character in the play "Social Security."

“At that time,” Moscatelli said, “me and the grandma were having a lot of fun because neither of us were anywhere near that age.”

At 85 years old, Moscatelli no longer acts in Maplewood Barn Community Theater productions and sees aging differently. He has survived two episodes of esophageal cancer and a quadruple bypass heart surgery. He sits at his kitchen table with a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm and waits quietly for the numbers to appear.

The display reads 166. He settles into his seat. He said that it has gone as high as 230, “which would kill most people.”

Despite health issues, Moscatelli is vibrant and remains an active participant in the education at MU's Medical School, where he served as a biochemistry lecturer for 35 years and a problem-based learning tutor for 13 years. He guided students in studying, diagnosing and recommending care for real-life clinical cases.

For the past four years, Moscatelli has taught more personal lessons as part of the Heyssel Senior Teacher Educator Partnership that began in 2001 to address the increasing demand for geriatricians to care for aging populations.

There are more than 75 million baby boomers approaching retirement age, a demographic that's driving the need for more geriatricians. In 1950, the average life expectancy was 68. Today, it’s more than 78.

The partnership pairs first-year medical students with elderly people for lunches and other opportunities to discuss aging. It also includes activities such as movies and walks.

The partnerships aren't limited to aspiring physicians who want to specialize in caring for older patients, said Peggy Gray, coordinator of the program, because the relationships can benefit all medical specialties.

One measure of the program's success is its growing popularity. In the first year, 29 medical students and 35 older partners signed up. This year, there are 61 students and 77 partners. Some partners share a student.

All total, 965 people have participated.

Gray said geriatric training is necessary because older adults have unique medical needs.

The training is also intended to break down stereotypes that students have about caring for seniors, Gray said. Often, doctors see older patients in the hospital when they aren't at their best. The program offers students the opportunity to know seniors as more than just patients. 

“I’ve seen our students change in the way they interact with older people because of participation in STEP," Gray said. “They become advocates for seniors and their well-being.”

Michael Hosokawa, a professor at MU's Medical School and a founding member of the program, began volunteering this year. The basic concept of the partnership is to share stories, he said.

"We get to know each other through stories," Hosokawa said. "As we get to know people, we share more personal parts of ourselves." 

Though Moscatelli retired in 1996, he is a legend at the medical school. He won numerous teaching awards, including the prestigious William Kemper Fellowship for Excellence. After his heart surgery, so many students crowded into his recovery room that the nurses had to chase them out.

Vinh Duong became the fourth medical student to partner with Moscatelli. When he met Moscatelli last September at a kickoff dinner, he tried to be formal.

“I addressed him as Dr. Moscatelli,” Duong said.

Moscatelli was quick to put his young charge at ease.

“He shared a lot about his life,” Duong said. “He told me, 'Get ready, there is a lot more to say.' ”

Moscatelli said one of the best parts of the program for him is the opportunity to continue interaction with students after retirement. 

Duong's own family life serves as a motivation for carving out time from his 50 hours per week of study to spend time with Moscatelli. “For most of my life, I didn’t grow up around grandparents, and so Ezio is like my grandpa. I told him that when we first met.”

Duong’s grandparents live in Vietnam where he was born and spent his early childhood.

Duong said spending time with Moscatelli makes him want to provide more holistic care to older patients. It’s not just about treating their medical needs, he said. “You have to include their emotional, spiritual and mental well-being.”

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