Empathy - Mel Finkelstein '03 MA
Like many in the still-young health advocacy field, Mel Finkelstein came into a new career-his fourth-by a roundabout path. Since December 2004, he has been a patient advocate in the Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.) Comprehensive Care Center in the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City. But only a few years before, he had been selling office supplies, a third career after working as an accountant and later owning a car service.
"My mother-in-law was in the hospital, and while visiting one day, I overheard a conversation about health advocacy," Finkelstein says. "It sounded interesting, and I could certainly relate to the benefit of helping people in difficult medical situations."
Part of his empathy came from having dealt with M.S. himself. Diagnosed at age 22, Finkelstein was told by his physician that he would soon be in a wheelchair. More than 30 years later, he hasn't been in one yet, and still bristles at that offhand comment. "If a doctor wants to deal with animals, he should become a vet."
The overheard conversation in the hospital many years later got him thinking about a possible career in health advocacy, and it led to Sarah Lawrence's master's program in the field. During his studies, Finkelstein completed an internship in managed care at the Jewish Home and Hospital in New York that resulted in a post-degree position there as an enrollment specialist in a study providing managed care to seniors.
For several years, he has been a patient at the M.S. Center where he now works, and his new physician, Dr. Joseph Herbert, learning that Finkelstein had just finished his master's program, brought up the idea of creating a patient advocate position in the clinic.
"Having M.S. myself, I frankly wasn't sure if I wanted to be around people with the disease in much worse shape than myself." His doctor, however, talked him into at least trying it.
In the clinic three days a week, Finkelstein works with 25 to 30 patients a day on different levels-if only just to speak with them. He helps the clinical team assess patients and helps patients navigate various "modules of care"-medical treatment, physical or occupational therapy, or social work, for example. He gathers and shares medical information materials and is an informal liaison with pharmaceutical companies. "The medicines to treat M.S. are incredibly expensive-$2,000 a month or more-but sometimes the drug companies will help out patients in a tough position. Because of the cost, I also spend time helping with insurance issues."
Finkelstein's personal background, along with his interest in writing illness narratives as part of his master's work, helps him explain to patients the nature of M.S. and how it progresses. "Many people who have the disease for years still just don't understand much about it."
His efforts often include noticing little things in the clinic experience to help patients-whether it's working with staff to rearrange office furniture to make it easier for wheelchair-bound individuals to get around, or improving privacy for those being examined. He also helps keep the sessions on schedule.
"The M.S. Center is really geared toward the patient, and I've always appreciated that. Keeping the doctor on time," he laughs, "is good for everyone."
As for Finkelstein's initial concerns about working with people who have more-progressed cases of M.S., they've been allayed. "I found that most patients immediately change when they find out I have M.S.. They know I can relate to what they're going through when I speak to them and get in touch with their feelings. It is a very rewarding experience for me and the director of the center says I'm making a positive difference."