Emergency Medicine Mentor
- By Jennifer Nachbur
Mario Trabulsy, associate professor of surgery, shares a light moment with her 2006 Medical Student Leadership Group students. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)
A dark mid-February sky looms outside the window of the brightly-lit, small-group classroom on the Medical Education Center's second floor. Eight first-year medical students surround a table, their scheduled discussion on professionalism in full swing. The group's faculty leader, associate professor of surgery Mario Trabulsy, animatedly quizzes the students on their respective interpretations of the white coat, an item of clothing they will each add to their wardrobe at a ceremony the next day. "What does the white coat mean and how do you want to use that symbol?" asks Trabulsy, who looks like she could be a student herself and yet, is clearly their educational -- and possibly spiritual -- guide in this exercise.
"The coat is a symbol, maybe not as a statement of 'I'm so powerful,' but 'I'm here to help you, be of service to you, hear your story,'" offers Trabulsy, looking intensely at the students in the room. An emergency medicine specialist, she often draws on compelling, yet not always flattering, personal stories to encourage students to more thoughtfully consider challenging topics. This technique helps her highlight the bare truths of medicine, that doctors are human, have human emotions, and might not always like their patients. "You must still treat patients humanely and with respect," she counsels, "because of what you have chosen to do professionally."
Serving as a Medical Student Leadership Group mentor for first-year students at the College of Medicine is only one of three vastly different types of teaching Trabulsy, a 2009-10 recipient of UVM's Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award, provides. A 1991 graduate of the UVM College of Medicine and faculty member since 1996, she also delivers didactic lectures and teaches medical students "on the job" during clinical rotations in the emergency department (E.D.). Her willingness to share, challenge and motivate students makes her popular, as well as an important mentor, to students often struggling with the weight of the medical school workload.
Listening, supporting, challenging
Class of 2011 student Kanayo Tatsumi considers Trabulsy, who led her MSLG 1 group in 2006-2007, a mentor and much more. "She was always real with us and held nothing back," says Tatsumi. "She let us go at it when we discussed controversial topics, called us out when we were being indecisive, embraced our naïveté and encouraged us to discover our potential, not only as medical students training to become competent physicians, but also to become compassionate and respectful members of society." A current student fellow in pathology, Tatsumi credits Trabulsy for carrying her through a number of personal and academic challenges she encountered. Annice Mason, a fourth-year medical student, agrees: "In school or out, she is always there for us!"
Another of Trabulsy's strengths, as cited in her students' course evaluations and touted by one of her teaching award nominators, is her ability to teach critical thinking and reasoning, one of the primary objectives of the MSLG 1 course.
"She is one of the few attendings who provide the immediate feedback that is so crucial to clinical education," says Mason, whose training in the clinical setting allowed her to both observe and interact with Trabulsy. "She listened to each presentation, challenged me to formulate a work-up and/or treatment plan on my own and consistently invited me to see the patient with her -- demonstrating appropriate interviewing, breaking bad news, and physical exam skills -- and would then work through her reasoning for accepting or altering my initial plan," Mason explains.
Trabulsy's dedication to teaching extends to curriculum development as well. As a 2005-6 Frymoyer Scholar, she developed a standardized program of study and supplemental online module that is delivered on the College of Medicine's electronic platform COMET for students' required emergency medicine rotation. A colleague who nominated her for the Kroepsch-Maurice award noted that "this program has standardized and greatly improved the curriculum for the medical students and the module is an outstanding example of the power of COMET and is a model for other curriculums."
Lauded for her ten-plus years of service as an advisor for senior medical students, Trabulsy has an impact that continues to reverberate with alumni like Dr. Jonathan Hall '08. "She cares about each of her students and takes the time to get to know them and their motivations," says Hall, an orthopaedic resident at Fletcher Allen who works with her frequently.
Back in the small-group classroom, Trabulsy tells her Class of 2013 MSLG group one of the main reasons why she wears a white coat in the E.D.: to show she's the supervising doctor to patients and family members who are expecting a man. "It differentiates you and you've earned that differentiation," she says, adding, "It's part of the profession -- the coat symbolizes that honor and that trust that you are doing what is right for them."
Class of 2012 medical student Susan Varga was inspired by Trabulsy to pursue the field of emergency medicine. "Through example, Dr. Trabulsy created an open space for us to freely share our ideas without reservations, challenged us, consistently showed interest in our thoughts and demonstrated respect for our input in all facets of the course," says Varga, offering proof that an excellent teacher also makes an outstanding role model.