Ellen Zhang knows the power of a narrative.
Zhang, a 2015 MVS scholar, graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s in integrative biology and a minor in global health and health policy. She received a 2019 Gunther & Lee Weigel Medical School Scholarship and now attends Harvard Medical School.
While she was an undergraduate student at Harvard, Zhang co-directed a club called Alzheimer’s Buddies, which pairs student volunteers with Alzheimer’s patients. The pairs exchange stories by reading poetry, listening to music and sharing photos.
Zhang’s work with Alzheimer’s Buddies inspired her interest in narrative medicine and motivated her to pursue a specialty in geriatrics. Zhang feels that connecting with others’ life stories pushes her to become a more compassionate caregiver. She channeled her connections with her buddy and her other work in the field into poetry, which she won numerous awards for.
“Medicine is multidimensional—the human body is [the foundation of] medicine, but the anatomy of the patient’s story is indispensable,” Zhang said. “I hope to become a compassionate, perceptive physician who understands the circumstances of my patients.”
Zhang’s work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients showed her the challenges of caring for patients in vulnerable states.
“It’s less about averting the inevitable, but instead striving to preserve the quality of life,” Zhang said. “Diagnosing and curing a patient is as important as building trust and providing dignified care.”
She saw firsthand how degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia can take away a patient’s ability to speak for themselves. She learned the difficult truth that not every patient gets better. And, health’s unpredictability, especially in the late stages of life, was frustrating for her.
Geriatrics confronts “the uncomfortable reality of decline,” Zhang said,
Receiving an MVS scholarship helped Zhang foster community through service, sincerity and selflessness. The service Zhang embarked on taught her to focus on dignity, respect and compassion in her work, and it encouraged her to become an active advocate for her patients.
“Being an Elks scholar has shaped my idea of service, which encompasses the idea of using one hand to climb up the ladder and another to pull others up with me,” Zhang said. “It’s shown me new perspectives, enhanced my empathy, and shaped me into the person I am today.”