A University of Pennsylvania medical student is receiving a prestigious national award on February 29th, 2012 for his work helping students deal with grief. His work is dedicated to the memory of his mother.
David Fajgenbaum’s mother Anne Marie was diagnosed with brain cancer just as he was about to start college at Georgetown. He wanted to stay home, she encouraged him to go. Fajgenbaum recalls being lonely and distraught during his Freshman year.
“I really, really had a tough time, I couldn’t really relate to anyone else,” recalled Fajgenbaum. “I felt like I was the only person going through having a loved one who is terminally ill.”
During his last conversation with his mother, she told him that she was worried about his well-being and future.
“I told her ‘Mom, I am going to be okay, and I will start something in your memory for other kids just like me,'” he said.
Fajgenbaum returned to campus, and founded Students of AMF — his mom’s initials which also stand for “actively moving forward.” It started as a peer support group for students who had lost or were losing a loved one. Quickly it grew to a national organization now represented on almost 40 campuses. Fajgenbaum says grief affects students’ academic performance and their ability to engage in campus life.
“It can make you grow up and become a fifty year old person trapped in an 18-year old’s body, where maybe you don’t want to go to that kegger on Saturday,” he said.
Others, says Fajgenbaum, turn to drinking or drugs to deal with grief. The support groups address these issues and help students stay on track. The organization encourages volunteering or fundraising in memory and honor of a loved one. This is especially popular with male students, who Fajgenbaum says often have a hard time expressing their grief. He believes that hosting a fundraiser or participating in a walk gives people the opportunity to start a conversation with friends about the person they have lost that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Fajgenbaum has been able to focus on this work as well as his medical studies despite severe personal challenges. Last year, he was diagnosed with Castleman’s disease, a rare cancer-like disorder of the lymph nodes, and spent three months in the hospital. He is now in remission, but receives regular chemotherapy treatments.
The “Welcome Back” award he is receiving from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare comes with a $10,000 honorarium. Fajgenbaum says he will use the money to promote and grow National Students of AMF.