This one time, Betty did a master’s degree. In her thesis, she wrote about three Australasian physician-writers, and interviewed some of them to talk about the ways their literary writing affected their medical practice, and, of course, vice-versa. It was lovely fun, and during the two years that she spent writing it, Betty gave a couple of guest lectures on related topics as part of her supervisor’s medical humanities course.
Last year, her supervisor asked Betty to consider coming to the big city and co-teaching the course, as well as giving it a bit of a reboot and adding a creative writing component. Betty considered this for about a quarter of a second before quitting her job and looking for an apartment. (In the interests of full disclosure, Betty must also reference the opportunity to train with the world-class Pilates master teacher, the wonderful studio to train in, and the boy person friend.)
Betty and her supervisor (who is awesome; he was at Oxford) split the teaching 50/50, and the course was a roaring success. That is to say, the students (all third-year medical students, with backgrounds in literature ranging from BA to “haven’t read a book since primary school”) read Chekhov, Kafka, Carlos Williams and Verghese until narrative and metaphor started coming out of their ears, and then they wrote a collection of poetry that made Betty blush with pride, and hope that if she ever drops almost-dead she finds a physician as empathetic, ethically sound, and articulate as they are.
This year Betty and her supervisor arranged to split the teaching 80/20. Betty is very excited. Though she has no desire to become a full-time professor, being a Lecturer: Medical Humanities is just what the doctor ordered. It’s a tantalising and chewy reminder of how much Betty loves academia.
All this, of course, means that Betty has a bunch of work to do redesigning the course. She plans to improve the section on mental illness by adding some more literature (the current readings are “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a semi-autobiographical story about undifferentiated schizophrenia, and some Plath poems; keen students can also read Alice W Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease), and create a specific section on grief (using CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Plutarch’s letter to his wife on the death of their child, and scenes from Truly, Madly, Deeply). Other sections cover topics like traditional medicine, ethics, metaphors of warfare and information systems, and the doctor-patient relationship.
Gentle readers with favourite literary texts that relate even remotely to practising medicine, giving birth, dying, being well, or being sick, should let rip in the comments section — no Lecturer: Medical Humanities is an island. Medium-sized stories or excerpts, or poems, are best, but I can show a few movie clips as well.
Faithful readers may now read this interview clip from Rafael Campo, a doctor-writer.
In my experience of poetry and medicine now, I see them as inextricably interrelated—so I can’t call myself one before I am the other. I want to elaborate on what I was saying in response to your previous question. I think there are two competing narratives of the body, of suffering: the first is the one that comes from the lived experience of ecstasy or pain, the stories my patients tell me when they describe their symptoms, when they allow me to examine their bodies; the second is the biomedical narrative, which I construct with biopsy reports, CT scan results, CD4 cell counts and blood pressure measurements. In our current moment, in our rampant fascination with science, this latter “just the facts” narrative claims, arrogantly, to be the more important one, the more valuable one—so we remunerate physicians lavishly for tests ordered or procedures performed. And yet at the same time, what most patients seem to feel is most lacking in medicine these days is compassion, the sense that their doctors listen to them, that their own unique voices are heard—in short, that what I think of as their more “truthful” narratives matter. So to be a healer in the most meaningful sense, I think that of course one must be able to synthesize all those important facts and perform all those technical competencies but at the same time, be able to warm the hand of the patient dying in the ICU despite all the IVs and ventilator settings, or share the stories of a life well-lived at the hospice bedside when one more round of chemo isn’t going to help. I don’t want to live in a world where these two pursuits are pushed further and further apart, where all the mysteries of our humanity are explained by deciphering the human genome, where we have billion-dollar pharmaceuticals for even the soul’s ailments. As a humanist and a scientist, I think it’s a kind of hubris to even suggest we might someday “solve the problem” of human suffering. May we instead always honor—through art, through poetry, through music, through all our imaginative engagements with what is ultimately unknowable—the humanity of those who suffer! Here is where we must feel awe, and be humbled. Not by some rocket we send up into the air, or some drug that helps us live a little longer.