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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Baylor College of Medicine Medical Student Wins National VA Contest

October 26, 2007

HOUSTON - Andrew Thurston, MSIV, a fourth year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, has won the 5th Annual Major C. W. Offutt “Caring for America’s Heroes” Essay Contest sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Second place went to a student from Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento, Ca. and third place was split between a student from the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center and one from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Open to all third and fourth year medical students, the Major C. W. Offutt Award is designed to promote caring, humanism, and understanding of veterans receiving medical care at VA health care facilities. It is presented on the basis of papers written about what medical students derived from caring for America's heroes.

With career plans to enter the internal medicine field, and ultimately, geriatrics, Thurston wrote about his experience getting to know a veteran being treated for cancer at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC).

"That was Mr. C's way - he was a comedian - and the more pain he sustained the funnier his jokes became. I learned from behavioral science that this was a "mature defense mechanism," and to be perfectly honest I preferred his way to those of my other patients. Mr. B, for example, had pancreatic cancer and was blaming his disease on past transgressions, while Mr. T was coughing up blood from a metastatic lung lesion and making plans to go fishing in two days. Many stoic men and women pass through the Houston VA hospital - people who, in times of duty, serve with heroism and rarely question - but in times of disease have no answers, and the uncertainty bleeds through the clean white of their reserve.


But Mr. C didn't fit this profile: he talked - a lot. About the weather, about the war - about anything and everything as if his thoughts were packaged on a conveyer from his mind, and he had to hand off each parcel to someone - anyone - or else they’d fall from his mouth and shatter. So I did what any second year medical student new to the wards would do: I sat in silence, and listened.


I learned to recognize the dryness in his voice when he needed water or rest, and the heavy creaking of the bed when he slipped into a sensitive subject. I could pick his chuckle out of a lineup of chuckles. Each morning he would share more stories from his Navy days, dropping ultrasound depth-charges to map the ocean floor. He spoke about the fat, round squirrel that lounged on the window sill, always eyeing his jar of peanuts. He spoke about the nurses, and the hospital food.


But he never spoke about his illness."


Thurston was born in Philadelphia to parents of Chinese and American descent, spent three years of his youth in Japan, and then moved to Dallas. He graduated from Yale University with a major in biology and is currently a fourth year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine with rotations at the MEDVAMC.

Nearly 3,500 health care professionals provide high quality care to veterans at the MEDVAMC. For more than 50 years, the MEDVAMC has provided clinical training for health care professionals through its major affiliate, Baylor College of Medicine. MEDVAMC now operates the largest VA residency program with more than 216 slots accounting for more than 580 residents per academic year. Each academic year, more than 1,000 students are trained through 112 affiliation agreements with institutions of higher learning in 13 states. Health care students from fields such as nursing, dietetics, social work, physical therapy, and a wide variety of medical specialties receive training there each year. This responsibility serves to enhance the quality of care provided to veterans in southeast Texas.

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Andrew may be reached for media interviews at