Cecile Hermanns, M1, MD Class of 2026
I met RM in September of last year. We were paired together as part of a yearlong program where medical students meet with dementia patients and learn from their experience. We ended up meeting in her kitchen on Saturday mornings, sitting at the kitchen table and drinking coffee.
RM has early-stage dementia. She was able to tell me about her life and remember details about mine. I received some phone calls about our plans – what cookies had we decided to bake? When was I out of town? – but overall, our conversations were like any others. Except I was surprised by the depth of familiarity we reached with one another in such a short time, the way she felt comfortable sharing anything and everything with me. As a medical student I could tell that I was perceived as someone confidential, a person to confide in and trust.
Part of the reason I chose to do this program was that my own grandma – who I call my Oma – has dementia. But she also lives in Germany and doesn’t speak any English. In the past, when I’ve visited, we’ve been able to communicate. But it is much, much more difficult over the phone now. My German hasn’t improved since elementary school, and while I was basically fluent then I now possess the vocabulary of a child.
I recently spoke with my mom, who is in Germany now, on the phone. What she told me was that her and my Oma had spent hours talking about our family vacations we took when I was a kid. My mom said my Oma remembered everything perfectly, despite having difficulty remembering yesterday or even the same morning. It struck me that what she had experienced was so similar to what I had experienced with RM. RM had told me about her own past in so much detail I easily could forget that she had dementia until the conversation turned towards the present.
There are things I learned about dementia through this experience, that conversations like the ones my mom and I are having with my Oma and RM can be therapeutic for both parties, and that there will be good and bad days. But on a more personal level, these conversations made me reflect on my own life. I think about how I fall into the trap of working so hard to accomplish goals without always realizing that life is happening right now. And these moments, the ones happening before your career is at an apex or everything is figured out, are the ones you will remember best.
To me, time feels like it is going by so very fast. People like RM and my Oma could probably tell me as much. I hope I can learn to slow down and appreciate the moment. After all, I’ll probably be telling my grandkids one day about the memories I make right now.