Narrative Medicine Night at Brooklyn College
By Rummanu Yeasin
The Medical Chronicles hosted Narrative Medicine night on Thursday March 15 from 5-7 p.m. in the Women’s Center.
The night consisted of three guest speakers, Jennifer Sotsky, Lisa Roth, and Jocelyn Jiao, who led a discussion about narrative medicine.
Sotsky has an MS in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University, and has been teaching narrative medicine to post-bacc students at Columbia and Dartmouth University. The Narrative Medicine program at Columbia is relatively new, and according to the program website, students will “learn the skills of narrative competence and master the leadership required to develop and implement narrative-based learning and practice in clinical settings.”
Jiao has a master’s degree in narrative medicine also. She is currently a first year medical student at Mt. Sinai. As a painter, she did her MS capstone project in an intensive oil painting summer course in London with the Slade School of Fine Arts.
Roth is a third year medical student at Columbia, and has an MA in English. She did a summer fellowship with Narrative Medicine and NIH funds in the British Museum in London on the depiction of neurological diseases in Victorian literature.
The attendees of the event consisted of undergrad and graduate students who were mostly Biology and English majors. They all sat around tables facing each other to discuss various aspects of how medicine and literature are connected. First Sotsky and Jiao discussed their experiences in the Narrative Medicine program, and then Roth spoke about how she uses narrative medicine in her clinical rotations.
“You can be a humanist outside of the library,” says Roth.
To many, it seems that empathy should come natural to a doctor – that they should also learn how to deal with patients in pre-med classes and in medical school. But such humanities courses are rarely taught. Roth believes in narrative medicine, and says that she is able to see her patients differently through her education in literature. She can view her patients almost as characters, and because of her learning through close reading, she can ask questions like why a patient uses a certain word, or why a patient is acting oddly.
One story Roth told the group was about when a child came in because of a seizure. Right away, the mother told Roth that Keppra gave the boy a seizure. Keppra is a drug that prevents seizures. The mother was suspecting and a bit hostile – she was also rushing to get home because there was no one to take care of her other son. When Roth asked the mom what happened to the boy, she said he was in a car accident when he was four years old. This one liner was totally different from the medical one liner about a boy with a left brain hysterectomy and post-medial shunt placement.
Because Roth tried to find out why the first thing the mom would say is that Keppra gave the boy a seizure, she was able to ask the right questions and found out that this boy needed more attention than a normal developing child, the mom had no one else to help her, and she was not giving the son Keppra regularly – so the first time she gave it to him, she believed it had the reverse effect. Roth was then able to speak to a social worker in the hospital who would help the mother out.
The group then did an exercise Sotsky usually does with her students. She gave out the poem “Days” by Philip Larkin and asked two students to read the poem aloud. Everyone then did a close reading of the poem and later discussed the various words that struck each person, and analyzed what the role of the doctor could have been in the poem.
Jiao further spoke about abstract art, and why it interests her so much. She says that there is “something about abstract art that is dangerous and thrilling – like searching for the key to a secret garden or simply getting to know someone who is careful and reticent.”
The Narrative Medicine program at Columbia is not only for physicians or future physicians. Many who are accepted into the program mold their own paths, and are already, or can become, nurses, medical journalists and writers who better understand patients, and medical narratives.
All three speakers agreed that studying the arts gives them a different perspective on learning about medicine. They agree that the sciences are of course important, and one must have a strong hold in the sciences to go to medical school, but classes in the humanities can also help in thinking critically and analyzing problems from different and more sympathetic perspectives.
“It was a very intellectual discussion,” says Yasemin Kaynas, a Senior Biology major. “It was great to see how we can incorporate humanities in our everyday lives, especially in science. It can be done! Science doesn’t have to be only science.”
The Medical Chronicles is a club that was started in the Fall semester by Rummanu Yeasin, a master’s candidate in English. The club seeks to intertwine medicine and the humanities and publishes print issues of their magazine in December and in April. The club also maintains an online magazine which can be read at themedicalchronicles.tumblr.com.