HDFS 4255/5255: Living with Chronic Illness

Keith Bellizzi, professor of gerontology, stands next to "Wall Drawing 867" a mural conceptualized by Sol LeWitt, at the Innovation Partnership Building

Gerontology professor Keith Bellizzi makes the study of chronic illness, death, and dying a spiritually uplifting one. Bellizzi at the Innovation Partnership Building in front of "Wall Drawing 867" a mural conceptualized by Sol LeWitt.

The Instructor:

A year after his second bout with thyroid cancer, Keith Bellizzi stands tall in his classroom, vigorous and slightly tanned after visiting one of his daughters at college in Florida. He gives the sense, when talking to you, that he really sees you. His capacity for empathy is tangible — the first thing you notice about him.

The Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS) professor of gerontology who teaches this Living with Chronic Illness class lives with chronic illness himself. His first bout arrived at age 24, in the form of testicular cancer. Six months later he found out he had an unrelated cancer in his kidney. A decade later, a CT scan after a mountain bike accident revealed stage 3 thyroid cancer. And last year he dealt with a recurrence of that.

The illness has not defined his life, says Bellizzi, but it has shaped it.

After surviving that first bout at age 26, he became determined to dedicate his life to combating cancer. He went back to school and earned three graduate degrees: a master’s in psychology from Central Connecticut State, a master of public health from George Washington University, and a Ph.D. in human development and family sciences from UConn.

His research focuses on healthy aging, resilience, and cancer survivorship. His teaching focuses on gerontology, chronic illness, and death and dying. It’s surprisingly lively — even uplifting.

The Class:

Chronic illness is an enormous public health challenge in the U.S. As the health care system’s ability to manage disease far outpaces its ability to cure disease, more and more of us live many years with diabetes, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, cancer, and other diseases with no fixed timeline.

HDFS 4255/5255 takes a broad view of chronic illness, exposing students to a range of issues in health care delivery, disparities, and health literacy, as well as training them to speak openly about challenging topics, including end-of-life care, advance directives, and death and dying.

Participating in class discussions, both online and in person, is mandatory. Students also have weekly readings, write papers, do a book report (this year they can choose from “Being Mortal,” “When Breath Becomes Air,” and “Tuesdays with Morrie”), and interview someone with a chronic illness.

The interview is a keystone of the course. It even led to a wedding.

Valerie Lachapelle ’13 (CLAS) interviewed Scott, a friend she’d been out of touch with, who was living with Ewing sarcoma. Lachapelle recently wrote Bellizzi to thank him.

“Through reconnecting with Scott, I also reconnected with his best friend, Cam, someone I went to middle school with. Cam and I really leaned on each other at the time of Scott’s death and became close friends. Ten years later we are married and had our first child this year. As a matter of fact, Scott’s mom officiated our wedding. ... I always give credit to this assignment for how my life has turned out. I wanted to share with you how much it meant to me.”

The class is intentionally small, fewer than 20 students, with a mix of graduate students and undergraduates. Most students intend to enter the health care and social work fields in some capacity.

One current student is already a medical doctor from Nigeria now pursuing his Ph.D. in HDFS at UConn.

While some students have gone on to practice medicine, others work in research — one is an analyst at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation; another is a scientist at the National Opinion Research Center in Washington, D.C.

“My hope is that they leave this class frustrated and angry with the U.S. health care system. But then motivated to do something about it within their field,” Bellizzi says.

“My hope is that they leave this class frustrated and angry with the U.S. health care system. But then motivated to do something about it within their field.”

Teaching Style:

Bellizzi greets the students by name as they arrive.

When a woman walks in, clearly agitated, he asks her what’s wrong, and she relays how a man was extremely inconsiderate, blocking the stairwell and staring at his phone even after he saw her waiting. It made her feel totally disregarded. “Ick,” she says. But telling Bellizzi seems to ease the ick, and other members of the class weigh in, advising her to not take it personally.

The conversation moves to current events and then to the previous lecture, which was on Medicare’s and Medicaid’s role in chronic illness management. It’s hard to tell when the conversation ends and the class begins — which is by design. The class has a discussion board where students are required to post questions and observations about the readings and engage with one another. The conversation is ongoing, and there is so much discussion throughout the class that Bellizzi rarely gets through all his slides.

At one point, some of the students are shocked by how little money a person must earn in order to qualify for Medicaid. A classmate who uses a wheelchair confirms that number, and then gives advice on how to navigate the system and get the necessary help while on public assistance. Sharing from personal experience is encouraged.

There are occasional guest speakers, including UConn Center on Aging professor of medicine Rick Fortinsky and Stacey Brown, a professor in public health sciences at UConn Health’s Health Disparities Institute. Those lectures tend to be a little more formal. Proper conversational etiquette and active listening are expected and graded as part of class participation.

A Bellizzi trademark is the sprinkling of inspirational quotes in his lectures. Some, like Gloria Steinem’s “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” are funny. Others, such as late ESPN analyst Stuart Scott’s observation that “you don’t lose to cancer when you die, you beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live,” are haunting. One young man temporarily stepped out of class with tears in his eyes after hearing that one; his mother had recently passed away from breast cancer.

The class has all the feels, and Bellizzi makes it a safe space to have them.

Why We Want to Take It Ourselves:

The topics hit close to home. If you’ve been delaying those important conversations with family members, hearing the story of how Bellizzi’s father — a business school professor at Quinnipiac University — spent his life savings on nursing-home care because he refused to discuss his own mortality with his sons will get your kids and you on the phone with a financial planner in a hurry.

In addition, the frank, open dialogue and storytelling will encourage you to ponder what it means to have quality of life, meaning, and purpose from unexpected angles.

By Kim Krieger
Photo by Peter Morenus


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