Photo of Monica Gerrek and Anna Goff
Monica Gerrek (left) and Anna Goff

“Quite the duo”: Bioethics mentor-mentee pair explore emotional impact of clinical ethics

Imagine you’re a practitioner with a patient who is a candidate for a high-risk surgery that would offer a 50% chance at long-term survival. Without the surgery, the patient would die. 

Should the patient receive the surgery at the risk of a complication? What would life look like afterward? Would the surgery offer a quality of life the patient could accept?

These are the scenarios Anna Goff ponders. A member of Case Western Reserve University’s Class of 2024, Goff recently earned her PhD in Bioethics. Throughout the course of her studies—the entirety of which involved mentorship by Monica Gerrek—she faced not only simulations and classroom discussions but real-world applications, as was the case with the aforementioned patient. In this instance, a medical team had called upon Goff, a clinical ethics intern at the MetroHealth System, to provide guidance. Her insights played a crucial part in the team’s decision to proceed with the surgery.

Ultimately, the patient died before the surgery was set to begin. But the event had a lasting impact on Goff.

It was among her first deep interactions with physicians facing seemingly impossible choices for patients, and would be far from her last. In her work with MetroHealth, Goff has given more than 300 consultations to guide medical teams to make the best decisions for their patients. 

With her PhD under her belt, Goff is now pursuing clinical ethics full time. She readily admits the life-and-death situations she’s confronted with take a toll.

“No one calls us when things are going well,” Goff said in what could be considered an apt summary of her dissertation.

Titled “The Roles of the Clinical Ethicist: Expectations, Experiences, and Emotions,” Goff’s dissertation explored the emotional complexity professionals in her field encounter as they weigh in on troubling situations. She credits Gerrk’s long-term mentorship for helping shape her ideas and bring them to life. 

A lifelong connection

Goff first met Gerrek, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioethics at the School of Medicine, when she was a first-year undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve. She enrolled in one of Gerrek’s bioethics courses and quickly grew passionate about the impact clinical ethicists’ jobs have on their mental wellbeing.

Gerrek remembers the exact place Goff sat in that classroom—and she isn’t surprised to see Goff achieve success as a PhD student.

“There’s been progression, and yet she’s stayed who she was,” Gerrek said, explaining how Goff’s outcomes are exactly what she expected. “She was an outstanding student then. She was an outstanding [first-year] student, and now she’s an outstanding PhD student.”

Goff has the same opinion of Gerrek’s teaching.

“The second you see Monica in front of a classroom, you can tell she was meant to teach,” she said.

As a PhD student, Goff stepped into a teaching role herself. She taught “Bioethics: Dilemmas,” the very course that introduced her to the field and Gerrek. Now positioned on the other side of the classroom, Goff came to appreciate Gerrek’s teaching even more.

Goff remembered how Gerrek played devil’s advocate, posing mind-bending scenarios to students who were forced to reconsider their stances on critical issues.

Gerrek doesn’t see anything inherently exceptional about her abilities as a teacher and mentor, stating that she simply makes connections and acts upon them to assist students in their development.

But an “anonymous student” saw it differently. Gerrek won the Jackson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring in 2019 for her role helping students realize their potential. That “anonymous student” nominator? Goff now admits it was her after all.

Over eight years, Gerrek and Goff have formed a tight bond that has evolved as their professional relationship has. They have worked together as Goff has gone from an undergraduate to a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Bioethics and Medical Humanities program, to a doctoral candidate. Goff also was a research assistant in the Institute of Burn Ethics at MetroHealth System, which Gerrek co-directs.

Now with her studies complete, Goff will soon head to New York City to complete a two-year clinical ethics fellowship at Weill Cornell Medicine. 

“Do I know a world at Case Western Reserve without Anna?” Gerrek asked, admitting that she has trouble wrapping her mind around Goff’s impending move. She added, “We are quite the duo in the department.”

Despite the transition, Goff is certain one thing won’t change.

“We’re going from her having all of these technical titles in my academic journey to her just being Monica and me just being Anna, and she’s always going to be a mentor in my life,” she said.