Devin Zarkowsky wants new mothers to recognize the importance of reading to their children.
That’s why he and Aalap Chokshi, another second-year medical resident at Albany Medical Center College, started the Birth Book Bundle program at the hospital in December.
The program involves having two medical residents bring a bundle of three children’s books to each new mother before she is discharged.
“We talk to new mothers about literacy and the importance of reading to children from a young age, just to make sure they are on the right track,” said Zarkowsky, who is from Richfield, Conn. “It’s the most important skill a person can have. As medical students, we read every day.”
The three books the residents give new mothers are “Good Night Moon,” “Corduroy” and “Clifford’s Animal Sounds.”
“We wrap the books up with some ribbons and go every day at lunchtime to talk with new mothers,” said Zarkowsky.
Asking about care
The residents also ask new mothers what they would like to have happened differently during their care.
“It’s sort of an open-ended question that mothers react to,” said Zarkowsky.
For example, one mother told the residents she was prepared psychologically for a vaginal delivery. But she had a complicated pregnancy and had to have a Caesarean section.
“She was upset that when she was going to be operated on, none of her doctors explained to her how bright the lights would be, how cold the room would be or how small the table would be,” said Zarkowsky. “She had a lot of trouble coming to terms with that.”
Other mothers have talked about the importance of doctors speaking to them frankly and using clear language free from medical jargon. Still other women have said they had a wonderful pregnancy and delivery.
So far about 25 first- and second-year medical students have signed up to talk with new mothers during their lunch hour.
The main benefit to medical students is they become more comfortable talking to people, explained Zarkowsky, who plans to become a vascular surgeon.
“That’s a really important skill that has to be developed with experience over time,” he said. “One of the great things about his program is that it provides an opportunity for students to come across different things in medicine that are not necessarily academic but are still important for learning about taking care of people.”
Since the program started, some 205 sets of books have been given out.
Zarkowsky, who remembers his parents reading to him when he was a child, said studies show the ability to read can later be used to predict a person’s health.
According to the Partnership for Clear Health Communication, literacy skills are a stronger predictor of an individual’s health status than age, income, employment status, education level or racial/ethnic group.
The difficulty may be because of poor reading comprehension skills, the complexity of medical information or the format in which information is delivered.
Funding for the books comes from a variety of places including a grant from the Prescribed Books for Kids Program at Albany Medical College, a grant from the Alpha Omega Alpha Society (an honor society for medical students), as well as grants from several other organizations. Additional support comes from Albany Medical College and Dr. Kevin Kiley, chairman of the obstetrics department at the hospital.
“We’re seeing about 98 percent of new mothers at this time,” said Zarkowsky, who makes up the schedules. “The ones we miss are on the weekends. It’s hard to drag medical students in on the weekends.”
Zarkowsky has visited about 50 new mothers himself.
“We’ve gotten some very nice thank-you notes from new mothers who are so appreciative of our commitment to literacy and understand the scope of the project,” he said. “It makes their experience at Albany Med happier, and we’ve been happy with the great response.”
Zarkowsky said he has enough funding for the rest of this academic year, and he is applying for grants from several organizations for next year.
“Since Albany Medical Hospital sees from 2,200 to 2,400 mothers a year, we estimate if we hit 100 percent of mothers, the cost will be about $17,000 for a year,” said Zarkowsky. “We’re already about halfway there.”
Patricia Coffey, program director for perinatal education and lactation at Albany Medical Center Hospital, said all of the mothers who have participated have been appreciative and excited about receiving the books.
“It also gives the medical students an opportunity to interact with the staff in our department,” said Coffey. “And they get to meet the patients and talk briefly about the literacy program and encourage families to read to their children from birth on.”
Since he began visiting patients, Zarkowsky said he feels much more comfortable and poised talking with patients in a clinical setting.
“I’m able to respond to patients in a way that I wasn’t able to before, and that comes from practice,” he said. “And this is one of the low-pressure, happier settings. I imagine it will be a boon when I encounter a patient who is actually in pain in a distressing situation. I believe I’ll have the tools I need to communicate my ideas and to listen to patients the way they need to be listened to.”
For further information or to make a donation, contact Prescribe Books for Kids, Albany Medical College Foundation, 43 New Scotland Ave., Albany, 12208.