First-year M.D. students from the UCF College of Medicine received a heart-felt lesson this week on the challenges and hopeful determination of people living with Down Syndrome. As part of their HB1 module, the doctors-in-training spoke with families from the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida, including the mother of a 7-month-old baby with the condition and a 22-year-old man who wants to be a worldwide advocate for people with disabilities.
Dr. Jane Gibson, professor of pathology, first invited patients with Down Syndrome and their families to the College of Medicine last year to help medical students understand the lives of people with the condition. The testimonies were so inspirational that Dr. Gibson organized another visit this year.
Amy Van Bergen, executive director of the association, talked to the students about the prejudices and myths associated with Down Syndrome and how improved medical care has increased the life expectancy of patients with the condition from only 9 years in 1924 to over 58 years today. Ms. Van Bergen’s son, Wils, has Down Syndrome but has defied many of society’s misperceptions by graduating from high school, attending college classes and living in an apartment at the University of North Florida. She described the devastation of parents who dream for nine months of having a “typical” baby and then learn that their child has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. “Our role, at the Down Syndrome Association,” she said, “is to help give people the dream back.”
La Taasha Byrd, whose 7-month-old daughter has Down Syndrome, told the students that as doctors they must combine their scientific knowledge with a caring heart. “If you have no empathy,” she said, “your degree is worth nothing.”