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Professors offer interdisciplinary course on perinatal death
August 13, 2015

The death of an unborn baby or an infant is a parent’s worst fear, and after such a loss they look to not only physicians and nurses but also to experts from behavioral health disciplines such as social work to help them navigate the intense grieving process.

As part of a new course at Rutgers, students had the opportunity to view perinatal death through an interdisciplinary lens. Titled “Perinatal Death, Dying & Bereavement,” the course was taught from May 26th to July 2nd. Primarily a School of Social Work elective, the course was open to all graduate-level master's and doctoral students, medical students and senior-level nursing students.

Perinatal loss generally refers to miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn/neonatal death, yet women and their families can also grieve reproductive loss (e.g., infertility), early pregnancy losses such as ectopic pregnancy, and medical terminations of pregnancy. The course encompassed a range of topics covering this unique kind of grief that is often not openly acknowledged or legitimized by health care providers or society in general, said the course’s lead faculty Shari Munch, an associate professor at the School of Social Work.

The 3-credit course integrated the disciplines of applied health such as genetics, medicine, nursing and behavioral health such as psychiatry, psychology, social work professions, while also drawing knowledge from the social sciences, arts and humanities, Professor Munch said.

To reinforce the multidisciplinary nature of the course, it was co-taught by Barbara Cannella, a clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing and Elena Ashkinadze, supervisor of Genetic Counseling at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“I wanted a truly interdisciplinary course, that included cross-disciplinary content; but also an aim of the course was to unite students and faculty across the health professional schools and across disciplines,” said Professor Munch, who was awarded a course development grant from Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership Consortium Initiative on Women & Health.

To add element to the course, the professors invited guest speakers from various fields to share their insights: William MacMillian, a maternal-fetal medicine physician from RWJMS; Jennifer Gamper Meenan, a reproductive medicine/infertility licensed clinical social worker; and Barbara Keith, a parent who experienced perinatal loss and founder of Joan’s Reach were a few of the speakers who discussed their experiences. In addition, two guest speakers Skyped in together from Iowa: historian Lisa Heineman, author of one of the required books for the course titled Ghostbelly , and Michael Lensing, Funeral Home Director.

The students enrolled in the graduate seminar course were also from different academic backgrounds, including medical, nursing and social work graduate students. Professor Ashkinadze said this helped students get a multi-faceted view. “Students from different disciplines learned from each other and that’s how healthcare should actually be.”

SSW Dean Cathryn Potter granted authorization for the medical students to audit the course, as the defined medical school curriculum did not allow for course credit. In addition, Joyce Afran, assistant professor at the RWJ Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, said RWJMS arranged a hands-on opportunity for these students.

“We put together a shadowing opportunity for the medical students with the family medicine maternity care services at RWJMS and at Somerset Family Practice Residency Program to make the experience even more clinically relevant for our students,” she said. “Students are working once a week with family physicians evaluating prenatal patients in the office and hospital setting.”

Joseph Grogg, a medical student at RWJMS was one of the students participating in this course. He said he undertook the course to learn about dealing with loss.

“I became interested in the class because helping patients deal with loss is something that I want to do well one day as a physician. But because we are talking about babies, you never really think about helping those families deal with death when everyone would rather assume that what these families are always going to need is help welcoming new life,” he said. “It really was a personal blind spot in how I view patients dealing with personal loss, and I wanted to correct that.”

Stephanie Heasman, a School of Social Work graduate student, who also took the course, wants to become a medical social worker. She said this class set a foundation for working with an interdisciplinary team, which can help her when she interns at a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit next semester.

“It was a great experience working with three professors. Each professor engaged in discussion and gave valuable feedback and perspectives. By having them and guest speakers, I believe it helped students gain a better understanding of the roles of each team member and how to work together to give patients the best care possible,” she said.

Professor Cannella said the purpose of the course was to teach students how to deal with sensitive content and understand the remarkable strength, hope and resilience of bereaved parents. She hopes to see the course become a requirement so it can attract students from greater disciplines.

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