The Value of Medical History

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By Sallya Aleboyeh, MEDS 2019

A group of passionate and curious medical students chose to venture to Ottawa on the Family Day weekend this past February. Instead of visiting their families, they dove into history, with a group of equally-passionate curators and assistant legislators to Elizabeth May who also gave up time to give us private tours of:

  • The Preservation Centre in Gatineau, which houses vaults filled with paintings, media and lots of important archives
  • Parliament
  • The Museum of Science and Technology’s Storage Facility (which is apparently cooler than the museum itself)

This year was the final time Dr. Jacklyn Duffin, Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine, organized the history of medicine trip, making the fate of future trips uncertain.  So instead of telling you how cool everything was (hopefully the photos can show that), I thought I’d share the value I see in keeping the tradition alive.

1. Cool Architecture: The Role of design, décor and architecture in medicine

(All photos by J. Duffin)

Arriving at our first stop, the Gatineau Preservation Centre, what stood out most was the architecture.  The vaults were inside a huge cement box that looked like the set of a parkour film; while the top floor, where restoration was done, resembled a Lego village complete with primary colour paints and street names for corridors.  Whether you cared about the science behind restoring artifacts or not, the design was very hard to ignore.

On a day-to-day basis, physicians not only interact with patients, but with their environment as well.  While it’s not practical or financially viable to have an architect design each hospital as a unique piece of art, the impact of space is large enough to warrant investing some thought.  There are already lots of examples of environment helping with patient or doctor experiences:

  • Having windows in the ICU rooms to help with delirium
  • Having paintings/magazines in waiting rooms to make wait times seem shorter
  • Having healing gardens to reduce stress for patients and health care workers
  • Having cartoon characters on walls in children’s hospitals
  • Having the nursing station in the middle of a room, visible to all patients, to reduce anxiety
  • Decorating your office with pictures of family to make working there more enjoyable.

(for more evidence of the importance of environment in health- check out this NYT article here!)

Obviously, during an emergency, it won’t matter how aesthetically pleasing the sheets or walls are, but the vast majority of hospital interactions with patients and among health care workers aren’t immediately urgent.  In these instances, a little interior design can work its subtle magic on people’s mood and their interactions because we all (I think) appreciate pretty things.  It’s why chefs create garnishes and why companies invest in packaging.  In the long run these small effects can add up to increase overall wellbeing and happiness.

2. Studying History is humbling and reminds you that your actions might outlive you

The Apology: Commemorates the legacy of the former Indian Residential School students and their families, as well as the Prime Minister’s historic Apology in 2008.

If you’ve ever been to a really old place, you’ll know that you get a strange surreal feeling, like you are experiencing something bigger than yourself (hopefully it’s not just me). When I was 16 and my mom took me to the ruins of Persepolis (wiki: “the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire”) and I felt it for the first time while trying to imagine what it looked like thousands of years ago before Alexander attacked it.  It reminds you at once of how insignificant you are and how capable you are of creating something that can last for generations after you are gone.

The profession of medicine can be demanding:  long hours, bad news, on call shifts, high stake decisions and emotional fatigue to name but a few.  It’s in these moments when remembering that you’re working towards something bigger helps.  One day when we’ve all left this planet, curators, historians and medical students may look through the ultrasound machines, pacemakers and lounge room coffee machines we used and try to uncover the story of our daily lives.  We can’t predict which of the thousands of items we see and use in our lifetime will survive as artifacts, but we can choose what kind of story they tell.

3. History is full of lessons and wisdom

Finally, most important of all is that history is an endless resource of wisdom and lessons.  We constantly look to our tutors, teachers and mentors for guidance for medicine because it’s easily accessible; but why stop there?

From history you can learn to be creative, and to draw inspiration from new places.  Over the course of the weekend, we saw multiple examples of technology from other industries being adapted to medicine.

  • The cloth used to make sails being used as a backing for fragile paintings
  • Ultrasound machines being used to detect aircraft defects and in the navy before being applied to medicine
  • The Fibroscan for the liver coming from cheese manufacturing (I technically learnt this in class after the trip but it helps prove the point)

History’s mistakes teach us to not just accept what we’ve been told but to dig deeper and ask questions because things may not be what they seem.  During our visit to the Storage room, the curator’s personal research on artifacts in the storage revealed that Sir William Osler – a great Canadian medical teacher – may have used the remains of aboriginal bodies for research purposes.  Another inquiry led the curator to discover that models of babies with syphilis were used to promote eugenics and not medical education as previously believed.  If we remain passive in our learning and acceptance of new information, it’s often the patient who will pay the price.

(In conclusion) I hope there will be many more history of medicine trips to come because there is still a lot that history can teach us (and lots of cities to be seen) before we begin our practices.


A version of this blog post appeared previously on the Medicine and Literature blog. Find it here. Thanks to Sallya Aleboyeh for her permission to repost it here.

 

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