VOL.10 NO. 2 THE MAGAZINE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH FALL 2000
Our Bodies, Our Shelves
A visiting scholar program in literature and medicine brings together great books and medical minds.
by Theresa Desmond
In a windowless conference
room at LDS Hospital, about 20 physicians gather on a winter evening to
discuss Shakespeares Macbeth. The doctors consider the language
of Macbeths soliloquies, the psychosomatic behavior of Lady Macbeth,
and the question of Shakespeares familiarity with the medical practices
of the time.
At University Hospital, doctors,
nurses, students, interested locals, and invited guestsmembers of
Utahs Hmong community, originating from southeast Asiafill
buffet plates before settling in to discuss The Spirit Catches You
and You Fall Down (the Hmong description of epilepsy) by Anne Fadiman.
The group views a portion of a documentary about the Hmong, then talks
about the differences between traditional Hmong and recent Western medical
Far from Oprahs madding
crowds of readers, unique pockets of book lovers have assembled in little
corners of the Salt Lake area. Their book selections may not make publishers
drool, and their featured authors are sometimes dead, not on tour. But
their conversations about literature and medicine, pursued through the
Us Visiting Literature Scholars Program, are always fascinating.
The visiting scholars program,
the brainchild of Jay Jacobson, professor of internal medicine at the
U, has enabled scholars such as Maillet to prod doctors, medical students,
and others with those questions. Jacobson, chief of the division of medical
ethics at University and LDS hospitals, attended a literature-and-medicine
program at Evanston Hospital in Illinois more than 10 years ago. He was
immediately enthused by two results of the program: one, engagementI
saw people talking about issues in medical ethics in a way they wouldnt
if those issues were presented in a didactic wayand two, candorI
saw doctors talk about some negative experiences and some emotional issues,
something physicians dont normally do.
Returning to the U, Jacobson
began the monthly reading group at LDS Hospital that still thrives today.
With support from the Utah Humanities Council and the Tanner Humanities
Center, he subsequently began to bring scholars to the U for a few days
at a time. Gradually, the program became more ambitious, with monthly
seminars at University Hospital, some original theatre, and, most recently,
sponsorships of scholars for six-month visits. Cynthia Buckingham, executive
director of the Utah Humanities Council, says it was this focus on a particular
profession that interested the council. Most doctors get their nuts-and-bolts
training in medical school but need training in the moral and ethical
issues that arise. How do I deal with a dying patient? Its not simply
a matter of prescribing the right dose.
Jim Overall, professor emeritus
of pediatrics and a reading-group participant, agrees. The readings,
plus the open and honest discussions among the 15 physicians attending
the seminars, prompted considerable reflection on my own life as a physicianprofessional
and personal values and priorities, the nature of my interaction with
patients and physician colleagues, the human needs of patients and physicians,
the gifts and shortcomings of the current health care system, and so on.
Maillet, who recei-ved her
Ph.D. in theatre (English and classics) from Northwestern, says the literature-and-medicine
field was initially conceived of to train medical students to think
more reflectively about what it might mean to confront different feelings
and patients. But that purpose, still the mainstay of the field,
has expanded to serve other groups and needs, as evidenced by Maillets
responsibilities as a scholar at the U. She facilitated four monthly reading
groups: the LDS Hospital group, which chose to focus on poetry; the University
Hospital group, which focused on health and cultural difference; a medical
student group, which held several sessions on the theme of difference;
and the group at the Cancer Wellness House. In addition, Maillet taught
an undergraduate course through the Honors Program, was the keynote speaker
at the Gender Equity Award luncheon, sponsored by the student chapter
of the Utah American Medical Womens Association, and made several
presentations to classes and groups around the campus and community.
Just as it was for Maillets
predecessorsAnne Hudson Jones, Joe Cady, and Suzanne Poirietthe
reading material was as varied as the groups. Though there are some canonical
texts in the literature-and-medicine fieldMaillet points to Tolstoys
The Death of Ivan Ilych, Eliots Middlemarch, William
Carlos Williams poetry, and Chekhovs short stories as just
a fewher groups at the U were open to all kinds of writing. The
University Hospital group, focusing on cultural difference, read, among
other works, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman
Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing by Lori
Arviso Alvord, M.D., and Elizabeth Van Pelt, and Woman Hollering Creek
by Sandra Cisneros. The latter, whose title story deals with a pregnant
woman in an abusive relationship and the medical visit that changes her
life, led the group to ask questions about the intervention of health-care
workers when abuse is suspected and how gender roles and assumptions of
authority can affect health issues.
Perhaps most interesting was
the small group at the Cancer Wellness House. Its program, Healing
Insights Through Literature, was unusual, Maillet notes, in that
it was primarily made up of patients, not practitioners. There was
a kind of connection between the readings and their lives that was quite
moving at times, she says. Without a pre-set reading list, participants
worked together to find appropriate texts. For member Connie Homerstad,
the goal was to read something that was not strictly informative. As
a cancer patient, Ive already read a lot of cancer books. Great
literature takes me away from the world of pain and cancer and all that
junk we live in. It moves and transforms me. For those re-examining
beliefs during the diagnosis, treatment, or recovery phases of cancer,
reading a book such as Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal,
Courage, and Survival by Velma Wallis, a tale of elderly women cast
out of their nomadic tribe to fight for their lives, can be an opportunity
for poignant group reflections and private insights.
As Jacobson points out, for patient or practitioner, there is almost always something stimulating about the right mix of readers and material. If issues arise through excellent books, people naturally talk about them. And talking may be just the right balm.
Theresa Desmond is editor of Continuum.
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