The elderly nun, a resident at ArchCare at Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center (TCC) in New York City, was quickly declining. A once-gregarious teacher, she had lapsed into near silence by the time Ashley Shaw CC ’13 delivered an envelope in July of 2012.
“She held my hand and gripped it,” recalls Shaw, a pre-med student who was then interning at the extended care facility for the terminally and chronically ill. “I asked if she wanted me to open the envelope for her. She indicated that she did. A friend had sent her $5 to buy a Diet Coke — she loved Diet Coke. I remember the sort-of smile on her face. I sat with her for an hour or more, in silence, just holding her hand.”
Such experiences had prompted Shaw to start the volunteer “At Your Service” program, which connects Columbia students with elderly TCC residents, to provide long-term companionship for those nearing the end of life. With grants from the Columbia College Alumni and Parent Internship Fund and the Work Exemption Program, Ashley devoted summer 2012 to laying the groundwork for At Your Service. Now, each semester, approximately 30 College and post-baccalaureate students devote four hours a week to TCC, two of which are spent engaging residents in recreational activities.
“TCC could really benefit from extra hands and extra people to talk to residents who might not have many friends or family who visit,” says Shaw. “And there was also the need of pre-med students [at Columbia] who yearned for meaningful patient interaction.”
Shaw, who majored in biology with a concentration in art history, became involved with TCC during summer 2011 through an internship offered by the Earth Institute Center for the Study of Science and Religion. She has accepted post-graduation employment at TCC and hopes to enroll in medical school in fall 2014.
In addition to palliative care, Shaw is interested in adolescent medicine as a result of her involvement with Peer Health Exchange, a national teen-oriented health education organization. During the last four years, through the organization’s Barnard/Columbia chapter, Shaw has taught more than 45 health workshops in public high schools throughout New York City. As a senior, Shaw also was president of the Columbia University American Medical Students Association – Premedical Chapter and community adviser for McBain residence hall.
The Torrance, Calif., native chose the College for the opportunity to live in New York City, a decision she relishes every time she escapes to Lincoln Center to catch a performance by the New York City Ballet.
A dancer herself since she was 4, Shaw sees a direct connection between her love of art and her work at TCC. “A lot of people at the end of life start to think about what makes life meaningful. Learning about art and what has inspired people to make art throughout the ages — whether it is religion, politics or just the need for expression — is what makes life meaningful. I feel those two areas of my studies are congruent and complimentary.”
- Nathalie Alonso CC ’08