Surgical Babushkas Take Care of Caregivers

January 29, 2019

“We know you’re a doctor… but even doctors get sick and need to be taken care of.”

That’s a line from a flyer for the new Surgical Babushka Program started by General Surgery PGY3 Dr. Ioana Baiu and PGY2 Dr. Ashley Titan.

“The idea is that, when you're sick, there's always a ‘grandma’ figure that can give you healthy food and meds,” said Baiu.

But with many residents living on their own and away from their usual support systems, that’s not always the case.

“I had two upper respiratory viruses in the span of three months,” said Vivian Ho, a vascular surgery PGY2. “Both times the babushkas were essential to helping me be clear through the days and sleep through the nights.”

The Babushka Program responds to sick residents by providing them with a bag with a few basic medications, chicken soup, and Gatorade. These supplies are hand-delivered to work or home by a Babushka.

“My roommate asked for a babushka for me. Much to my surprise, Dr. Spain showed up [at my house] himself,” said General Surgery PGY2 Dr. Kirbi Yelorda. “It made me feel supported and proud to be a part of Stanford Surgery.”

In addition to Baiu and Titan, two fellow residents—Drs. Ken Perrone and Julia Chandler— and two faculty members have also joined the Babushka team—Drs. David Spain and Cindy Kin.

“As a Babushka, I get to help out colleagues who are hard at work caring for sick patients even while they are sick themselves and support an initiative that builds community and prioritizes physician wellness,” said Kin. “We have to look out for each other, because we tend to be the types of people who forget to do that for ourselves until it’s too late.”

Baiu was motivated to create the program after the death of a colleague in 2017.

“He was a pediatrics resident with me in Boston and passed away after calling in sick with a ‘GI bug,’” said Baiu. “Had someone been able to check on him sooner, or provide him with some hydration, things might have been different.”

To prevent such an event from happening again, Baiu and Titan applied for a HealthySteps to Wellness Team Grant from the Stanford WellMD Center.

“The idea was not only well-crafted with every detail carefully considered, its core is incredibly heartwarming and focuses heavily on team care and building community,” said Stanford Health Care Wellness Manager Alexandria Blacker. “We were just blown away, and we’re so proud to have been able to support this group and a program that we know will make such a large impact.”

Baiu and Titan were awarded $1,000, the largest amount possible, to fund their pilot program.

“What is touching is that most of the babushka packages delivered have been requested by others who noticed that their colleagues are sick. We talk a lot about physician burnout,” said Baiu. “What better way to tackle that than to make people feel supported and like they’re part of a family who cares about them.”

Baiu hopes to publish her work and inspire other departments—at Stanford and beyond—to create programs of their own. So far, her data shows 100% of patients feel that the program fulfills a need that is not addressed otherwise. 

“Before the [Surgical Babushka Program], I was sick for twice as long and was half as effective at my job,” said Ho. “I heavily recommend it to other folks, because it’s definitely a really great experience.”