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Dr. Amy Ship Is "Compassionate Caregiver"

Recognized at annual Kenneth Schwartz Center gala

By Jerry Berger
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff

When Linda Hines learned that her doctor, Amy Ship, MD, Healthcare Associates, had won the prestigious Schwartz Center Compassionate Caregiver Award, she said it felt like she had just "won the lottery."

"For her to win is for all of us to win, and I never win anything," said Hines, BIDMC's Program Coordinator, Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, who nominated Ship for the award given annually by the Boston-based Kenneth B. Schwartz Center. "She just listens, she cares, and she never, ever preaches at you. She's been my doctor for 10 years and I remember on my first visit told me, 'I'm your employee, I work for you.' No doctor before or since has ever said anything like that to me."

Now in its eleventh year, the Schwartz Award recognizes the caregiver in Massachusetts who best personifies the mission of the Schwartz Center to "advance compassionate health care in which caregivers, patients and their families relate to one another in a way that provides hope to the patient, support to caregivers and sustenance to the healing process."

Ship's award was announced at the Schwartz Center's annual dinner Nov. 19, at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. More than 100 health care workers were nominated this year. The nominees ranged from social workers to physicians to nurses. Ship was one of five finalists for the award. Other finalists included Gregory Fenton, MD, from the BIDMC-affiliated Sidney Borum, Jr. Health Center's Justice Resource Institute.

"Warm, intelligent and humble, Amy is adored and admired by her patients, students and colleagues for her formidable clinical skills and her big open heart," said Schwartz Center Executive Director Julie Rosen. "In Dr. Ship's world, there are no such things as patients, only people."

In accepting the award, Ship spoke of the importance of small gestures in the doctor-patient relationship - specifically, the art of listening with both eyes and ears. "Returning the (patient's) gaze is one of those powerful small gestures," she said. "It encapsulates empathy and compassion - being present, fully present, to another human being: pausing to look back. To say with our eyes that we are listening, that we hear."

It's a lesson she teaches medical students who rotate through Healthcare Associates. "I'm proud to be a primary care doctor," she said. "Primary care is focused on continuity, of knowing one's patients through all their illnesses and the complexity of their lives. And primary care is focused on prevention - on protecting you from the consequences of untreated but silent diseases and from unnecessary tests or hospitalization. That's care we all need and deserve."

"I look out tonight at a room filled with people who have the minds, energy and position to change medicine, and I want to make it clear that primary care needs saving. Those who practice it need to be given the time to do it right. Primary care can literally save lives, but it can not be done well in the tiny 15-minute visits to which we are held. There is no ICD-9 Insurance Code for compassion."

As the mother of two sons, Ari and Jeremy, both born with significant brain damage, Ship has experienced both sides of the doctor-patient relationship. "For more than eight years now, I have been on the other side of the table, the recipient of care rather that the caregiver," she said. "Those who have paused to connect with me on this journey, or have identified strength or beauty in my sons, have gone well beyond whatever treatment they've recommended or prescription they've written. And those who have not seen my sons, have not paused to return their gaze, have ultimately not cared for me or them in any way."

In 2006, at the age of 4 ½, Ari died suddenly, leaving a hole in the family's heart.

"The longer I've practiced medicine, the more I've come to realize that we are all, as the years go on, 'survivors,'" she said. "For some it is cancer, but for others it is diabetes, or seizures, or kidney failure, or all of the above. Others are survivors of loss - loss of a limb, loss of sight, loss of autonomy, loss of hope, loss of a loved one. And I have learned that many of us - like me - carry with us some secret sorrow - a loss or challenge that is not noticeable. Connecting with patients means looking for what is not immediately visible, listening for the hole in another's heart."

Ship is famous for her fierce loyalty to her patients and their families, as generous with her time as she is with her heart. She regularly visits a beloved former patient at a nursing home. E-mail her on her day off and you're likely to get a quick answer. Families whose loved ones are no longer her patients still turn to her for medical advice.

"We are all so lucky to have Amy as our colleague, friend and mentor," said Russ Phillips, MD, Chief, Division of General Medicine and Primary Care. "Through her practice, Amy serves as a constant reminder to always put our patients first. Her humanity, desire to listen and determination to treat the whole patient make Amy an outstanding physician and teacher."

The Schwartz Center, established in 1996, is an autonomous, not-for-profit organization, which supports compassionate health care and seeks to strengthen the relationship between patients and caregivers. The Center achieves its goals through education, training and support programs. A statewide review committee composed of physicians, nurses, social workers, community health workers, and patient advocates reviewed the nominations for the award.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
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Posted December 2009