Ross Perry receives national award for writing essay about compassionate care
Ross Perry grew up determined to become a politician.
“I was always a pretty gregarious child, and I didn’t mind public speaking,” he recalled of his middle- and high-school years in leadership roles and drama. “So I thought I would go into politics for that reason.”
But after he left his hometown of Santa Rosa and took political science courses at UCLA, he changed his mind. His impression was that politics was a morally complicated field full of opinions. Instead, he majored in psychology, taught English in South Korea, and worked for a chiropractor.
A few years after college, he decided he wanted to become a doctor and studied in a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program at Mills College in Oakland. He then found his way to UC Davis, where he expects to graduate from medical school next spring.
He doesn’t regret dropping his political pursuit.
“Because now, at the end of the day, I don’t have to sell an opinion,” Perry said. “I just have to sell people on the importance of their own health goals and how we can together help them achieve those goals.”
During his four years at the UC Davis School of Medicine, Perry has been a fervent supporter of promoting wellness among his classmates and the community.
That passion earned him distinction as a Blum Fellow in 2019, a UC Davis humanitarian award. The fellows program granted Perry $2,000, which he used to start a walking program to help prevent diabetes among patients of Paul Hom student-run clinic. Perry has spent many hours at the clinic volunteering.
At the program’s first meeting in pre-COVID 2019, dozens of “Walk with a Doc” participants exercised as a group, watched a healthy cooking demonstration, and received $20 grocery vouchers to use at the Oak Park Farmers Market. The grant also paid for exercise equipment for patients.
“Honestly, the reason I felt inspired to do these things at Davis is, in part, because I’m just surrounded by the amazing diversity of students who are doing these amazing things; there’s so much advocacy,” Perry said. He then quipped: “It’s a wonder any of them have time to study.”
Compassion for dying patients
In the past two years, Perry has earned a much-deserved reputation for providing compassionate care to his patients.
In fact, this past summer, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation awarded Perry the top prize in a national essay contest for his poignant account of caring for an oncology patient who later died.
Perry, a childhood cancer survivor who aspires to specialize in pediatrics and palliative care, won the foundation’s 2021 Hope Babette Tang Humanism in Healthcare Essay Contest for his paper, “Dear Reader.” The contest asked medical and nursing students to engage in a reflective writing exercise that illustrates an experience in which they or a team member worked to ensure humanistic care. It is named for Hope Babette Tang-Goodwin, who was an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.
We talk through many afternoons. You are hungry to be heard, and so I listen. I hear about your travels. Your jobs. Your regrets. Your mistakes. Your fears. Your hopes. Your plans. Slowly, your humanity unfolds itself, and I begin to see a side of you no scan could ever capture.
Perry’s 850-word essay recounts his interaction with a 32-year-old man who lacks family support and is being treated at UC Davis Medical Center for a recurrence of cancer.
Perry starts the essay pleading with the reader to “walk a mile in the shoes” of his patient, who at one point gets discharged with a urine collection bag and a colostomy bag. “You are complicated now. You are messy. But you are alive,” Perry writes.
Perry tells how he met the patient as a third-year medical student and felt ill-prepared to provide care.
“It is day two of my six weeks on the wards, and you are far too complicated for me. I am a deer in the headlights, and you are a sixteen-wheeler with the brakes cut loose. Still, they put me on your case,” Perry writes.
Perry starts to bond with the patient.
“We talk through many afternoons. You are hungry to be heard, and so I listen. I hear about your travels. Your jobs. Your regrets. Your mistakes. Your fears. Your hopes. Your plans. Slowly, your humanity unfolds itself, and I begin to see a side of you no scan could ever capture.”
Even after Perry’s six-week rotation ends, he occasionally visits his former patient. He writes him a card, tells him it was “my greatest privilege” to take care of him.
“You were my first real teacher,” Perry states. “And in the end, although I could not save you, I think I made you realize how much you matter. And I think that might be enough.”
Perry thanks the patient and calls him his friend.
“To you I dedicate this essay,” he writes. Even in the age of “medical miracles,” Perry emphasizes, “there is still no intervention more powerful than a genuine human connection.”
He concludes that the soul, “heals not by human medicine, but by human kindness.” When a patient passes away, Perry declares, “we often wish we had practiced a little bit less of the former and a whole lot more of the latter. May I never forget that. May I never forget you.”
Essay to be published in medical schools’ journal
The essay will be published in an upcoming edition of Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Perry also received $1,000.
He said he was surprised and honored to win the contest and hopes readers can learn from his challenging experience.
One of his mentors can relate.
“Ross seems drawn to difficult situations, in a positive way,” said Internal Medicine Clinical Professor Rachel Lucatorto.
The first day Lucatorto and Perry worked together, the professor took him to a comfort care patient whose condition was deteriorating. Perry and Lucatorto stayed until the patient died an hour later. Perry then stayed longer, after the patient’s wife and daughter arrived.
It meant everything to Perry to enter the family’s emotional space, Lucatorto said.
“While his behavior and presence were remarkable in this situation, it was also his reflection after the experience that impressed me,” Lucatorto said. “He completely appreciated what a big deal – and even an honor – it was to be present.”
Ross seems drawn to difficult situations, in a positive way.
Promoting wellness to his campus and community
In addition to volunteering at Paul Hom Clinic, Perry helped found the School of Medicine’s Academic Medicine student interest group. He was also elected to the position of co-wellness chair of his class, a four-year responsibility.
Perry is also is known for organizing a popular ping pong tournament and other wellness activities at the School of Medicine, along with Sharad Jain, the associate dean for students, and Maggie Rea, a clinical psychologist who is director of student and resident wellness.
Focusing attention on student wellness, Jain said, shows that Perry is thinking of the future: “There’s a lot of literature that’s coming out on physician burnout, and it leads to depression and dissatisfaction with jobs and medication errors.”
Jain added: “We want our students to learn good habits now that they’re going to carry forth.”
When Perry spends time away from his fourth-year clinical duties he enjoys writing poetry, playing sports, and backpacking with his wife Alyssa. Lately, he’s getting extra exercise by frequently running after the couple’s 15-month-old daughter, Frances.
In less than five months, Perry will know which residency program he’ll join to continue his dream of becoming a pediatrician and a physician dedicated to helping patients deal with their serious illnesses.
And although he’s done with the notion of entering politics, he doesn’t completely dismiss the idea. Like any good politician, he’ll never say never to future possibilities.
"I may go back into politics one day,” Perry said, “but I hope it's after many years of direct patient care and community advocacy."