Archive for the ‘the study of literature’ Category

This is the fourth semester in which students read and comment on myincision. I am excited they are joining me here and thrilled as I anticipate reading their comments. Their assignment for this medical humanities unit is to read my first-ever post “Why Horseshoe Crabs?,” choose four other posts, and complete the following exercise: For each post, state its title, publishing date, and the reason you chose it, and then make a Comment, i.e. share a brief impression either on-line or on paper.

I always experience some anxiety about my students reading myincision as I feel I step out of my teacherly role. One of the goals of the blog is to chronicle my pain, frustrations, triumphs, discoveries, and stories about my family and my life in general in relation to living in the aftermath of infant surgery. Is it appropriate to share this deeply personal material in a basic college composition class?  Whether it is or isn’t can be debated. What I’ve come to realize is that part of my purpose for being on the planet is to share these experiences with the public.

As a community college instructor, I position my blog within a broader context of the study of medical humanities. Medicine and Literature, Writing as a Healing Art, Poetry as Medicine, Narrative Medicine, and the Medical Memoir are several types of courses within this genre that are offered at various institutes of higher learning. In my 1A course, we read the anthology The Healing Art of Writing, a collection of poems and essays chronicling writers’ journeys with illness and recovery. Blog, Heal, Teach is a Workshop I’ll offer this April at the Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa at The Examined Life Workshop. Studying illness narratives, including mine, at the community college level has its rightful place.

It’s rather humorous that I feel compelled to justify the study of my blog in my class. I think it’s because writing within an academic context is often so prescribed; as a result, it can feel limiting and artificial. We ask students to argue points, think objectively, present evidence, employ critical thinking, and consider  counterpoints. This goal is worthy and appropriate. However, I also believe that we overemphasize this type of writing, ignoring countless other powerful approaches to relating ideas to and in the world.

So students, I offer you a three-week reprieve in which you can explore the inner workings of self and do the work of a college student: synthesizing, organizing, explaining, and analyzing. The art of the personal narrative is about capturing experience with creativity and clarity in such a way that it further enlightens readers about the complexities of being human. A truly worthy academic pursuit in my opinion.

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I was explaining to my community college English class what the term medical humanities means when one of the student’s hands shot up. She told the story of a friend of hers whose baby had just had surgery to repair a cleft palate. The surgeon’s first words to the parents after the operation were the issue. He said, “The surgery was successful, but you’re not going to like what you see.” The parents were horrified. You’re not going to like what you see.

This type of story is why I understand that there’s still so much work to do in the field of medicine. Communication is key. Here’s a super-skilled surgeon with a decade of training and tons of experience– the operation was successful —who terrified already frightened parents. One might say, well, the parents can handle it; after all, the operation went well.  But why should anyone have to “handle” it?  Parents of infants who’ve had surgery need a lot support and deserve clear and thoughtful communication.

Consider this, too. The surgeon’s words undercut his own success. Instead of feeling honored by the parents, he receives shock and anger. Wouldn’t he want to invite a positive interaction for all? Wouldn’t he want his clients to feel satisfied?  I’m sure he wants to feel valued and to be thanked wholeheartedly for his great work.

The student who shared this story with the class was quite passionate about the wrongness of the surgeon’s words. Apparently, the parents were devastated by them. I asked her what words the surgeon might have said that would have brought a better outcome. I can’t recall her answer exactly, but they went something like this:  “The surgery went really well. It will take a while for her to recover for she’s been through a lot, but she will heal beautifully, you will see.”

Of course, not all doctors communicate badly, but many do. What in their training could help?  Exposure to medical humanities. Bringing humanism into the equation and compassion into the discussion. Studying literature, for example, that helps professionals access their own vulnerability and confusion. Reading stories that reveal our shared humanity. When the hearts, heads, hands, and mouths of doctors work in synche, the outcome will be powerful. Until then, the wounding continues.

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