Humanities and the surgery clerkship- not mutually exclusive

Relevant disclosures:  I was a liberal arts major (Poli Sci, minor in Econ) in College.  I took Latin in middle school and high school.  I have a profound weakness for literary fiction.  I embarked upon my medical career not because I had visions of being a great scientist, but because I had visions of being able to help people and take part in their stories.

My last group of students from the academic year finished up on Friday, leading into a two week break from the clerkship and all things associated with it.  This year marked the first year in which we had a Humanities option during the clerkship, an idea I’ll openly admit to having co-opted from colleagues at other institutions.  While the ultimate impact of humanities in undergraduate medical education is unclear at best, my passion for creative activity makes me believe that participation in medical humanities allows all of us to stay connected to those qualities that make us most human.

I offer the students the humanities option to replace a written assignment by telling them that the goal is for them to engage in some form of creative activity that relates to their experiences during the surgical clerkship.  I’m not any more prescriptive than that, mostly because it is a creative activity and I don’t want the students to feel bound by my ideas.  The experiences in response to that vague instruction have been remarkable, including intensely personal poetry about patients, tales of ethical dilemmas they have encountered, inspirational visual arts,  creative games, lots of food, and even a couple of yoga practices.  Some have been fun, many have been heartfelt, all have been transformational for anyone who has been present.  This week’s was no different- and was likely the most intense session we’ve had all year.  Several of the students who opted for the elective had stories they wanted to share as the basis for a discussion with the group.  As often happens, stories lead to more stories, and I was walked through the gamut of awe, frustration, shame, compassion, and wisdom that the students always seem to bring to the table when we have these sorts of discussions.

For those who don’t believe that the next generation is wise or that they truly care, I want to tell you that you are wrong.  Ask a student what they are seeing from their perspective as someone new to our profession.  Ask a student about their experiences in caring for patients.  Ask a student to tell you a story of an experience that impacted them deeply.  Once you’ve asked, listen.  Listen deeply, and listen carefully.  You won’t be disappointed. If anything, you’ll realize that the future is very bright and that they care deeply about medicine and about our patients.

I’m grateful that once every six weeks I get to sit in a room with a group of 3rd year medical students who share their talents, dreams, and fears with each other and with me.  They’re honest.  They’re brave. They’re inspirational, and I am always humbled by the reminders they give me about why we’re all in this crazy profession.

MT, self-portrait pre-clerkship
MT, self-portrait pre-clerkship