Medical Student Miriam Toaff Commemorates Mother’s Memory, Celebrates Patients

Rising fourth-year MD student Miriam Toaff
June 30, 2017

Miriam Toaff, a rising fourth-year MD student at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), walked into a hospital room in the spring of 2016, prepared to check on one of her first patients; she was in coma following a major accident. Upon entering the hospital room, she noticed that the patient’s husband was visibly shaken over his wife’s medical situation. Toaff approached him and said, “I know I’m part of the medical team, but l want you to know I am happy to help with whatever you need. Let me know how I can help you.”  

Toaff, who spent weeks in the hospital with her own mother, was familiar with the pain that the patient’s husband was experiencing that day. She wanted him to know that she was willing to provide him with support, as well as provide his wife with the medical care she needed.

Toaff’s mother, Anna Lev-Toaff, MD, a radiologist who specialized in fetal imaging and ultrasound, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma a couple of years earlier. She’d moved between hospitals across the country and had undergone chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, but the prognosis wasn’t positive. “My mom’s experience as a patient was really sad,” Toaff recalled. “I never imagined this would be her experience.”

The mother-daughter pair bonded over Toaff’s medical school applications during the trek between hospitals and treatments; Lev-Toaff, who was particularly strong and determined, came from a religious background and fought for her education, Toaff said. During Toaff’s first year at SMHS, however, her mother experienced a massive brain injury, slipped into a coma, and passed away months later.

On the first anniversary of her mother’s passing, Toaff, looking for a way to commemorate Lev-Toaff’s memory in a meaningful way, had an idea: “Brighten Someone’s Day.”

“I had this vision of a swarm of do-gooders taking over the hospital,” Toaff said. “I jumped in and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I ordered balloons, found a wholesale florist, ordered the flowers, and made the arrangements.”

The event, held annually starting in April 2016, brings together SMHS medical students to make and deliver cards, along with balloons and bouquets of flowers with notes (“Best wishes for a speedy recovery! Hope this brightens your day!”), to hundreds of patients at GW Hospital. “It’s been amazing,” Toaff said, describing the parade of students, carrying the flower arrangements and balloons, across the Eye Street Mall.

For Toaff, “Brighten Someone’s Day” now holds a myriad of meanings: it is a powerful reminder of Lev-Toaff’s spirit; it provides a forum for Toaff and her colleagues to support patients in a way her mother would’ve appreciated when she was ill; it gives medical students the chance to demonstrate that care goes beyond hard-and-fast medicine; and it encourages students to appreciate the situation that many patients and families are in. “Brighten Someone’s Day” gives Toaff and her colleagues an opportunity to spend that extra minute with the patient and their families, and it’s a good reminder that meaningful dialogue and a humanistic approach is genuinely appreciated.

“It’s really hard to think that my mom never got to be part of my journey through medicine,” Toaff said. “[But now] I can commemorate her, and carry on her spirit, her desire to help people, and her undeniable will to [live] outside of the box.”