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profiles in giving

An Intimate Portrait of a Heart Doctor

Dr. Joseph GaschoDr. Joseph Gascho (C 68), a heart specialist, refuses to view himself as superior to any patient. That doesn’t stop some patients from viewing him that way.

But he leveled the playing field when he went to patients’ homes and tool their portraits—especially when patients saw Gascho, an amateur photographer, fumble with his equipment.

Last fall, Gascho completed portraits of 43 patients. He went to their homes or workplaces, typically spending 30 minutes to two hours. His goal was to better understand the person reflected in the medical tests and charts.

“Over the years, I’ve had a special concern, interest, in trying to be sure we see patients as more than a heart attack,” says Gascho, who works at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

The medical center recently put the portraits on display in a corridor outside the cardiology suite. He labeled each portrait with a few words and symbols from the patient’s medical chart, seeking to highlight the contrast between the data and the human being.

Gascho’s father moved his family from Nebraska to Virginia and took a maintenance job so Gascho could attend Eastern Mennonite High School where he later taught physics, chemistry and math before going on to medical school at the University of Virginia.

Gascho realizes doctors, and modern medical care, are commonly criticized as cold, distant and impersonal. But he refuses to hold himself up as a model or preach about what other doctors should do.

At EMU, “theology courses under Willard Swartley and English courses with Herbert Pellman helped me, even as a ‘die-hard’ pre-med major, to realize that there is more to life than science and that there is more to the person that the body.”

Gascho teaches humanities courses that deal with medical ethics, and supervises cardiologists in training. He hopes they’ll notice the project.

“Hopefully, something like this will give some people some pause,” he says.

Gascho sees patients one day a week, typically seeing 15-20 in a day. He spends 40 minutes with new patients and 20 minutes with returning ones, although about five minutes is devoted to recording notes.The 43 patients he photographed represent about 10 percent of the patients he’s seeing since he began the project.

“I was a little surprised. I didn’t know he was into photography or any other field,” says Dorothy Huffman of Hummelstown. Huffman, 72, has been a patient of Gascho for about 10 years. He photographed her at he medical center gift shop where she volunteers.

He also photographed her 80-year-old husband, Gerald, also a patient, at the car dealership where he works part time.

“He’s a very caring person, and this showed that even further,” she said.

Ralph Engle, 67, said it “seemed a little unusual” when Gascho proposed coming to his house to take pictures. Gascho photographed Engle, a model railroad buff, near his elaborate train display. “I was very honored,” said the Lancaster County resident.

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Gascho says he wanted to see patients in their natural setting, where they were not thinking about their medical conditions, and were surrounded by things they enjoy. By learning about patients’ lives, Gascho says, he gleans more information than he’ll ever get through his stethoscope.

“I’ve been impressed with the medical students I’ve seen from EMU who have attended Penn State’s medical school, says Gascho. “The Anabaptist view of the world that pre-med students get at EMU is excellent preparation for not just the rigors of medical school but for a life in medicine, a training that will help them to see their patients as ‘more than heart attacks.’ To me the heart of Anabaptism is following the example of Christ’s life: responding with a heart of compassion to those in distress.”

—adapted from an article by David Wenner of The Patriot-News, reprinted with permission