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Retreat and Renewal


The New Physician October 2000
On an awkward and uncertain Friday night, 41 members of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s (UFCOM) second-year class ventured to a wooded retreat center to get to know one another outside the walls of everyday medical school life. The retreat offered a chance for us to begin to share our worlds and worldviews.

We have found it beneficial for us as medical students to pull out of our everyday intensive grind. It’s important for us to put ourselves in a place where we come closer to our authentic selves and see the beauty of the individuals with whom we share the dream and path of becoming a physician. Retreats foster humanity, compassion and the beauty of the human spirit—these are all characteristics central to serving patients.

Our retreat may start with an early morning Tai Chi session, led by Dr. Wayne Jonas, a retreat co-facilitator. After Tai Chi, a group assembles in the kitchen to prepare a healthy, delicious breakfast for everyone. Some of our best times are spent in the kitchen or around the big communal dining table, sharing food and animated discussion about our lives, our hopes and our challenges.

During the day, we spend time in small and large group sessions, as well as on our own. We explore our relationship to touch and its potential for healing in a series of “hands-on” exercises. We learn how to listen and really hear one another both through experiential training and sitting in a large group sharing our feelings and stories. We discover the world of nature surrounding us by interacting with it, either through “awareness walks” or through the challenges of a rope course. We examine our limits and often move beyond them.

The evenings are often the time for the realms of imagination. Drumming and chanting guide us on a “Shamanic Journey.” We build a campfire, singing and dancing, and still more drumming as the smoke rises and we toast s’mores. We stay up late singing to guitar music or quietly sharing our stories with each other. And in the morning we share the dreams we have remembered.

Many students have expressed a deep appreciation of their retreat experience. “Retreats give us an opportunity to relax and get to know each other in a fun setting,” says Deepa Kamath, a third-year at UFCOM. “The elements of self-discovery, safety and creativity all break down barriers and allow us to build stronger friendships. Retreats foster self-development and mental, emotional and physical health in future physicians, and their popularity parallels the trend toward better, more patient-based health care. After all, unless we are happy and fulfilled, how can we make a difference in the lives of our patients?”

These bonding and sharing experiences also help to put our own struggles in perspective, as UFCOM third-year Jeremy Mirabile discovered. “One of my classmates recounted the story of his imprisonment when he tried many times to escape his native country,” Mirabile says. “His safety and survival were always uncertain. His experience made our mundane concerns about grades and tests seem trivial. I returned to the classroom humbled, with a new and balanced outlook about life.”

One year prior to our Florida retreat, 16 medical students, most of whom were from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, gathered at a retreat site in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Many did not know each other well, and some were strangers. But all grew closer through the weekend’s “Nature, Spirit and Healing” theme. Over the course of an intensive two days, a deepening friendship developed—something that would sustain them back in the academic, day-to-day world.

While there have been several retreats held in Virginia and Florida, other medical schools have instituted similar programs. Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons offers a full-day team- and trust-building experience for second-year students. Half of its second-year medical student body attended Columbia’s first retreat last year. The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine is also one of several schools offering such a program.

Both students and faculty have been responsible for initiating retreat programs. One such supporter is Dr. Allen H. Neims, UFCOM emeritus dean and professor of pharmacology and therapeutics. “Personal growth is the real journey of life, and one we don’t emphasize enough,” says Neims, who along with other faculty, helped sponsor our first UFCOM medical student retreat because, as he says, “People have to be growing on the inside as well as the outside—not just in information. You need that kind of growth to have meaningful relationships with patients.”

Different retreats may choose to focus on specific goals. Our Virginia retreats were centered more on personal exploration and our connection with nature and spirit, as well as one another. The Florida retreats focused on community building, leadership responsibility and interpersonal skills. However, each of the retreats managed to bring out all of these elements in different ways. Whatever our focus at retreats, we come back to ourselves, to a wholeness where spirit, mind and body move in harmony. We see ourselves in each other, appreciating both our diversities and our surprising similarities.

Interested in planning a retreat? Neims offers the following advice: “Make sure you have a core group of people who really want to do this. Decide whether the retreat will be for the whole class or just for interested members. [And remember,] timing can play a part in this decision. For example, if [the retreat] is scheduled during an orientation period, most or all of the class tend to participate, whether or not participation is required. Look for faculty members to help you find your way, to guide you during the process and support you with the school administration. Find humanistically oriented faculty members—every school has them.”

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to humanism in medicine and cultivating the tradition of the caring doctor, may be one place where you can seek help funding your retreat. For more information, visit

The American Medical Student Association’s (AMSA) “Humanistic Medicine Interest Group” will hold a retreat in Florida during the weekend of Jan. 5–7, 2001. For more information on the upcoming retreat, contact national retreat project leader Susan Milam at For additional support and information on creating your own retreat programs, you can contact us at our e-mail addresses below.
Billy Fenster is a third-year student at UFCOM and a national co-coordinator of AMSA’s Humanistic Medicine Interest Group; Pali Delevitt is a retreat facilitator and a Ph.D. candidate who works at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine;