The class is called “Life is Beautiful,” and it pairs Drexel University students with patients receiving hospice care. Over the course of several weeks, students visit Crossroads Hospice patients in their homes, and chronicle their life stories. The lessons learned go far beyond writing good biographies.
The invulnerable meet the dying
On the day of final project presentations in class, the mood in the room — despite the serious subject matter — was decidedly upbeat. Students filed in, exchanging news about “their” patients. Drexel professor Ken Bingham says the course has been a great success, despite the unlikely pairing at its core.
“Young students who are all invulnerable, and, at the height of their invulnerability they are talking to people who are dying,” he says.
Some educators and students were apprehensive at first, worried that the class would be too sad, too emotionally draining. “And what we found out is that it had nothing to do with death at all, it was just so exciting,” beamed an upbeat Bingham who wore a bright Halloween T-shirt and gym shorts to class.
Realizing what’s been missing
Sophomore Hannah Gittler was paired with Thomas — Tommy — Jamison, who is 76. For her final project, she wrote a letter to him.
“You, Mr. Jamison, have taught me, you have shown me, what I have been missing. If I hadn’t met you, I might have lived my whole life missing this knowledge. Ignorantly, and maybe blissfully. I might have gone through my days thinking I knew what connection really meant,” begins the letter.
“Your stories of triumph, of being alone, but seldom lonely, of seeing life and living love, those are the stories I will never forget,” it continues.
Gittler, who said the class has been an opportunity of a lifetime, has become close friends with Jamison.
Jamison, who hopped freight trains as a kid, taught karate, and dreamed of becoming a professional boxer, was a larger-than-life presence in the classroom throughout the summer session, said Bingham. “To hear about Tommy, who is more alive than I am, the things he had done, he was a better teacher than I was.”
Focusing on living, rather than dying
The patients were unable to attend the class, but several students said they would continue to visit them as long as possible.
And the patients love the project, says Kimberly Mumper of Crossroads Hospice.
“They are reliving their life — and it’s giving them a reason to live, leaving their legacy,” she explained.
Crossroads executive director Gloria Allon said the project takes patients’ attention away from dying, and away from any symptoms they might be experiencing. It focuses their attention on their lives, on the things they have accomplished, and the people who are important to them.
Three patients died over the course of the semester, among them a 24-year-old woman, but students still say it was an experience in living, not dying.