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Physician helps students see the humanity in public service
STANFORD -- After 20 years of medical service to the poor and homeless in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., Dr. David Hilfiker might strike some people as a living saint.
But when the author of Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor talked with premed and medical students at Stanford earlier this week, it was his humanity that seemed to have the most impact on his listeners.
"Many medical students come in feeling that the most important part of medicine is relating to patients, but that is not emphasized in medical school. What is emphasized is the mastery of the science and technology," said Hilfiker, who will deliver the second annual Charles F. Riddell Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, in Kresge Auditorium, as part of Hunger and Homelessness Education Week.
Physicians like the feeling of being in control, Hilfiker said, "while the reality is that human relationships are messy things. So when I talk with premedical students about public service, I tell them about preparing for the long haul - how to hang in there. And the first step is to acknowledge that they will be affected and changed by medical school, and to develop a community of support to deal with the emotional and spiritual issues that will arise."
A graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Hilfiker has been working with poor people since 1975, when he entered rural family practice in a community near an impoverished Native American reservation.
He later worked 10 years in an inner-city Washington, D.C., neighborhood clinic before helping to found and operate Christ House, a medical recovery shelter for 34 homeless men. He currently lives and works at Joseph's House, a community of 11 formerly homeless men with AIDS.
He is on campus this week as the 1995 Visiting Mentor for the Haas Center for Public Service, in a program designed to bring accomplished individuals engaged in public service to Stanford to promote dialogue among students and other members of the community. Visiting mentors live on campus and have an office at the Haas Center to facilitate contact with students.
Hilfiker's wife, Marja, also came to Stanford this week. She spoke with students about her work in promoting adult literacy, through a small adult education school in Washington that she founded about 10 years ago.
"I first heard Dr. Hilfiker discussing his book on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program, and he seemed to be very reflective about his own experiences as a middle-class white person working with the poor," said Jackie Schmidt-Posner of the Haas Center, who coordinated the visit.
"I thought he was very articulate and candid in talking about the contradictions that he faced in trying to do that, and that this would be perfect for our students to hear."
In his free, public address at Kresge Auditorium, Hilfiker will address the topic "We Are Two Nations: America's Abandonment of the Poor."
The speech, he said, "will cover what I perceive to be the greatest threat to society - the extraordinary division between rich and poor which seems to be exacerbated all the time. It's simply not a good idea for society to be structured so that some people have much more than they need, and other people don't have decent lives.
"In the current political climate, we seem to have lost our ability to talk about that," he said. "But I would really like to start a conversation about the things that we can hold in common, and then argue within the same family about what our approaches might be."
Hilfiker's visit to Stanford also will feature a panel discussion, "From Charity to Advocacy: Reflections from the Field," with homeless advocates Fran Froehlich, Kip Tiernan and the Rev. Michael B. Kep, at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18, in Cypress Room North.
Hilfiker's visit is supported by the Haas Center, the Charles F. Riddell Fund, Lantana House and the Stanford Medical School. For more information, call Schmidt-Posner at the Haas Center, 723-9181.
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