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Alumnus Christian Makkar Delivers Compassionate Care to Hospital Patients During COVID

When it comes to practicing medicine, so many skills cannot be taught in a textbook. One of these skills is empathy—something Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) recent graduate Christian Makkar, PPC ’20, MS ’21, strengthened while conducting his thesis at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and Emanate Health Inter-Community Hospital.

Makkar’s thesis—for KGI’s Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) program with a concentration in Clinical Research—focused on improving the quality of care that hospitals delivered to patients and the discharge process.

Throughout this experience, though, he has worked with staff in both hospitals to deliver something else that is not quantifiable but equally valuable—connecting with patients on a human level through interactions that go beyond offering standard care. From September 2020 through February 2021, Makkar was at Hollywood Presbyterian, where many patients are from marginalized communities.

“It enhanced my ability to relate to other people’s perspectives,” Makkar said.

While interacting with one woman in her 70s, Makkar could tell she was nervous because she did not pause between her sentences. As it turns out, she had just learned she had Stage 4 renal cancer. Because she had been healthy her entire life, this was shocking news for her.

As Makkar conversed with her, he found out she had been a Hollywood screenwriter. They began watching TV, talking about Hubert Humphrey—one of her favorite actors.

“The more we talked, the more she was able to relax,” Makkar said. “It was inspiring that I could help her like that, and I also gained the ability to understand other people’s behaviors better, putting them in context.”

Experiencing these moments of connection was particularly crucial when COVID-19 first started, and patients could not have visitors. Thus, Makkar and the nurses were the only forms of social support that patients had.

Sometimes, even a seemingly small gesture can go a long way. This principle was particularly evident at Emanate Health Inter-Community Hospital, where much attention is placed on fostering interpersonal connections with patients.

“For example, if a patient is really craving Sonic hamburgers, the nurses will actually go out and get the burgers,” Makkar said. “Small actions like that emphasize that we care for you; you’re not just a collection of signs and symptoms. Even in a hospital setting, you should feel comfortable and relaxed.”

“Through this project, I’ve become a more personable, empathetic care provider.”

Makkar has sharpened these skills through his interactions with patients, but KGI faculty helped set the foundation. Postbaccalaureate Premedical Certificate (PPC) Senior Director and Instructor Dr. Joon Kim taught him a series of valuable lessons.

“Joon has made a profound difference in my life for the better,” Makkar said.

One lesson Makkar learned from Kim was to structure “wins” into his weekly schedule by starting and ending the week on a positive note. Another was the value of defending his reasoning with valid evidence and not being swayed by others’ opinions.

Through his PPC and MS experiences, Makkar has learned the importance of bonding with his classmates outside of school. For a Medical Diagnostics group project, Chair of Business and Bioengineering for the Henry E. Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences and Arnold and Mabel Beckman Professor Dr. Angelika Niemz had the teammates go to an arcade to connect with and support one another. Additionally, Makkar has enjoyed activities with his cohort, such as hiking and playing basketball.

“Going through that pressure cooker environment definitely brings you closer together,” Makkar said.

Another professor who has had a significant impact on Makkar is Professor of Practice in Translational Medicine Dr. Anastasia Levitin. She taught important psychology principles such as the primacy effect and the recency effect, which Makkar then got to see in practice as he conducted his thesis.

These principles illustrate a person’s tendency to remember the first and last events in a series the best, demonstrating why first and last impressions are so important when working with hospital patients. For example, Emanate Health strives to evoke positive emotions at the end of a patient’s hospital stay to create memorable final impressions.

Makkar also found Levitin to be an inspiring role model.

“She’s very enthusiastic and positive, and so I always strive to be that way too, especially with patients,” Makkar said. “They’re at a negative time in their life, so I try to help them feel happier.”

For Levitin, this optimistic attitude expressed by Makkar was a valuable asset not only to the hospitals he worked for but to KGI.

“It was great having Christian in the program and in a clinical project during Coronavirus time,” Levitin said. “With his positive outlook on life and willingness to share his experience, he was a great indicator of what was working and what needed to be improved to make the students’ journey through the program valuable.”

For his long-term goals, Makkar plans to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“My aunt and grandmother both had musculoskeletal injuries,” Makkar said. “I want to give people the ability to walk and empower them because sometimes when you have a broken bone, you don’t have self-sufficiency. This is my way of giving people their body back.”

Makkar appreciates how Assistant Professor and Program Director, Master of Science in Medical Device Engineering Dr. Anna Hickerson has provided him with an in-depth knowledge of prosthetics, taking time out of class to help him better understand orthopedic tools such as X-rays and MRIs.

From Professor of Practice for Pharmacy Law & Ethics and Healthcare Information Technology Dr. Robert Stein, Makkar learned the importance of critical analysis and became more cognizant of injustices within the pharmaceutical industry. And from Associate Director of Research, Master of Science in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling and Adjunct Assistant Professor Dr. Nicholas Gorman, Makkar learned how to quantify and present his data as he conducted his research project. Makkar enjoyed Gorman’s approachable style and the way he encouraged everyone to ask questions.

“Before I started at KGI, I had no idea I was going to transform into the person that I am today,” Makkar said. “And it was a collective effort—not just through Joon or my professors. All of KGI stepped in. They really make sure you’re growing into a person who gives back to society and makes the world a better place.”

Kim sees this transformation in Makkar as well.

“Christian exemplifies two essential qualities for a physician: relentless pursuit for self-improvement and humility,” Kim said. “He is not afraid to ask for help. It’s precisely this quality that has contributed to his remarkable transformation during his tenure at KGI.”