I have always loved reading novels. I’m particularly drawn to those that feature complex and fully fleshed out characters battling various personal “demons”, confronting sundry human challenges in interesting contexts. I must confess to having always regarded the reading of such books as something of a “guilty pleasure”, a self-indulgence taking time away from more immediate, directly relevant pursuits.
This week, thanks to the efforts and insight of the Aesculapian Society, particularly Michael Chaikoff and Soniya Sharma, many of us had the opportunity to hear from and meet with Dr. Vincent Lam, who was this year’s H.G. Kelly Memorial lecturer. Dr. Lam is an Emergency Medicine physician and award-winning author of a number of works including “Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures” and “The Headmaster’s Wager”. In his address, Dr. Lam made the case for the role of storytelling as a way of understanding and deepening communication between physicians and their patients, not only as a means of transferring important information, but he also spoke of how it can contextualize the relationship in more human and personally meaningful terms. In conversation afterward, I asked him about the process of novel writing. I had always naively assumed that the author begins the process with an outline of the completed story and goes about adding detail and context. Apparently not so. Most authors, including Dr. Lam, begin by imagining and developing their characters as fully formed people with all their individual traits and uniqueness. They then go about studying and researching the context in which those characters will “live”. Using characters and contexts with which the author is already somewhat familiar is obviously a good start, but considerable research and immersion is required in order to produce stories with depth, realism and relevance. In researching for “The Headmaster’s Wager”, Dr. Lam made two trips to Vietnam in order to better appreciate the environment in which his story would evolve. With character and setting in place, the author allows his characters to “live”. Their actions and reactions become a natural consequence of the interaction of their personality with the times and situations in which they find themselves.
One can’t help but recognize parallels within the physician-patient relationship. Our patients come to us as uniquely formed individuals who find themselves in a new, baffling and threatening context, specifically an illness or health challenge of some type. Our role as physicians is to come to the encounter already prepared with understanding of the illness, or “setting” of that challenge. Our “art” is to find within ourselves ways to efficiently and effectively engage the patient, understand the uniquely individual responses to the illness and guide the patient through the terrain. In doing so, the physician must develop a broad appreciation of the human experience in all its fascinating complexity. In this sense, the reading and appreciation of quality literature would seem at least as valuable as reading the latest thrombolysis trial. Certainly the former is likely to be of more enduring significance.
At Queen’s, we have benefitted over the years from the efforts of numerous faculty who have steadfastly championed various components of the Humanities within and around our curriculum. Dr. Jackie Duffin, herself an award-winning author, has been providing History of Medicine lectures integrated with various teaching blocks for many years, as well as student projects and excursions intended to deepen their appreciation of the history of their chosen profession. Students have consistently found her teaching to be a highlight of their medical school experience, as evidenced by Dr. Duffin being a recipient of the Connell Teaching Award which the graduating class bestows annually on the faculty member considered to have had the greatest influence on their education at Queen’s. Drs. Shayna Watson and Peter O’Neill have provided, largely on their own initiative, contributions to elective courses devoted to various themes related to literature, spirituality and the humanities. We have maintained strong curricular content in Medicine and the Law (led by Patti Peppin of the Faculty of Law) and Medical Ethics (led by Drs. Cheryl Cline, Susan MacDonald and previously Ellen Tsai). Many others have contributed in informal but highly meaningful ways.
The challenge, of course, is determining how best to integrate the Humanities and Social Sciences within a rather dense and highly scrutinized curriculum. How does a Curriculum Committee, charged with meeting the various competencies and objectives established by professional bodies, accrediting agencies and well-intentioned interest groups, ensure these are achieved and balanced? How does it weigh the value of medical literature or history against understanding the management of hemoptysis or causes of renal failure?
As a means of engaging this challenge, I recently asked Drs. Duffin, Cheryl Cline and Shayna Watson to develop a review and make recommendations on the teaching of Humanities within our school. They involved three of our students, Alicia Nicke-Lingefelter (Meds ‘16), Amanda Lepp (Meds ‘15) and (now Dr.) Renee Pang (Meds ‘13). That excellent report has already motivated changes in representation within our curricular committees and is leading to changes in how we “label” and integrate various teaching opportunities within our curriculum. It has also raised a consciousness about the Humanities and Social Sciences that is always the first step to ensuring appropriate balance. I’m arranging for the report to be posted on the UG Website and welcome feedback from all faculty and students. It can be accessed at: https://meds.queensu.ca/central/community/curriculumcommittee:reference_material
I’m most grateful to the authors of this report and to all who have and continue to champion the Humanities within our school. I’m also very grateful to Dr. Lam who has made me feel much better about my guilty pleasure.