Empathy in action
By Alli Haltom
“I sank into a deep depression,” said Kaplan-Liss, now a physician and Assistant Dean of Narrative Reflection and Patient Communication for the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine. “I was only 17, and all I could see ahead of me was this disease and what it had taken.”
Then a chance encounter with a fellow patient changed everything. While recovering from surgery, she watched an episode of “This is Your Life,” which featured special guests whose lives were narrated by family and friends. The episode highlighted NFL kicker Rolf Benirschke, who had recently made a triumphant comeback after battling ulcerative colitis and receiving an ostomy.
“That moment was a turning point for me,” she said. “This guy is healed and playing professional football after not only enduring the same disease I had, but also receiving care from the same doctor that I was currently seeing. It gave me hope.”
The two met a few weeks later, when Benirschke’s San Diego Chargers were in her hometown of New York City to play the Giants.
“We compared surgeries, our pain, our fears and our thoughts,” Dr. Kaplan-Liss said. “He told me how hard it was for him at first to take locker-room showers around his teammates with a bag, but understood that without it, he wouldn’t be alive.”
Over the next two decades, the two lost touch even as they spent their careers working on similar missions. After his NFL career ended, Benirschke helped develop patient support programs for pharmacy and medical device companies.
Dr. Kaplan-Liss first became a journalist and then later a physician and devoted her career to teaching other doctors how to communicate and be empathetic. This area of specialty coupled her unique professional background with her first-hand knowledge as a chronic patient who has endured more than 20 surgeries.
She distilled her knowledge into a medical communications curriculum for the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, creating a one-of-a-kind program that will develop students throughout their entire medical education.
“Practicing good medicine is extremely important, to be sure,” Dr. Kaplan-Liss said. “But what ultimately affects the outcome of a patient’s health is the way a physician communicates and empathizes with them.
“To instill these attributes in physicians from the very beginning is an unbelievable opportunity. I don’t know of any other school in the nation that has a comprehensive four-year communications curriculum, and the ripple effect of this is going to have an enormously positive impact on the health care community.”
Last fall, she gave a presentation about her medical communications curriculum to members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council at TCU. One of the attendees was Benirschke, whose son is a current TCU student. That led to an unlikely reunion between the former kicker and the doctor, who found they still shared a bond from battling the same illness.
“When someone young goes through an illness like this, they have a choice,” Benirschke said during a recent interview with NBC 5. “It always changes us, but the choice will be to stay bitter or become better. Our combined experiences will be able to put something together that’s impactful for young physicians and patients and change how medicine is practiced going forward.”
Benirschke said he is amazed at seeing how Dr. Kaplan-Liss has turned her medical journey into something that could help so many people.
“Because of a kind football player who inspired me so many decades ago, there will be students today who benefit from the lessons we each learned as patients,” she said. “I couldn’t think of a more perfect time for a reunion, and the reminder of how an empathetic gesture can change the course of not just one, but countless lives.”
The TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine is pending accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education and approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and is not recruiting students.