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Liberal Arts and Beating Hearts: A Conference for the Medical Humanities

For something that sounds like an oxymoron, the field of medical humanities has been able to delve into the creative minds of health care professionals and provide a glimpse into the human side of medicine. On Saturday, April 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., the medical humanities minor at Boston College will host its first medical humanities conference, entitled Body, Voice, Narrative: An Interdisciplinary Discussion in Medical Humanities. Medical humanities minors Katherine Carsky, MCAS ’16, Abigail Dryer, MCAS ’17, Emily Sokol, MCAS ’17, and Nicholas Raposo, CSON ’18, organized the event with the help of Rachel Ernst, GMCAS ’19, over the course of an entire year. The conference will explore the intersection between medicine and the humanities and will feature presentations of submissions by writers from around the Northeast, concluding with a keynote address by Jonathan Adler, associate professor of psychology at both Olin College of Engineering in Needham and Wellesley College.

Over the past 40 years, health care has incorporated the unique perspectives offered by other disciplines for an increasingly well-rounded approach to medicine. The 1970s and ’80s saw a social revolution in the field, with people challenging the traditional ways of learning medicine and clinical practice. The term “medical humanities” came from the desire for a more humanistic approach to health care, treating the whole person instead of focusing only on the illness.

To meet this demand, universities soon began offering medical humanities programs—however, these courses were usually only offered at the graduate level to medical school students. Fifteen BC faculty members, representing a wide range of academic fields, collaborated to develop a medical humanities program for the University modeled after existing programs at other institutions. The BC medical humanities program soon took on its own form—it remains one of the few medical humanities programs in the nation to be offered exclusively at the undergraduate level and draws on the University’s commitment to ethics and social justice.

After two years as a pilot course, the minor became a permanent offering to students in 2014. Students take courses in global health, ethics, narrative medicine, natural science, and social science through different departments to form a more holistic view of health care and the person.

“Medical humanities minors are interested in immersing themselves in humanistic approaches to health care,” Amy Boesky, director of the medical humanities minor, said, noting that students drawn to the minor have also been influenced by strength of the humanities at BC. The minor supplements the standard courses students would take for their major and asks them to consider health care through a multidisciplinary lens.

“The medical humanities minor is one of the most important things I’ve done,” Carsky said. “It’s something I didn’t realize I was missing until I was actually getting involved with these different classes. They’re things I wouldn’t have done otherwise and have really brought my whole education full-circle.”

The minor prepares students for the collaboration they can expect in their professional careers, especially in health care.

“Health care is, in its nature, interdisciplinary and involves teamwork,” Boesky said. “Students like having that approach in the classroom and in their extracurriculars, eventually [preparing them for] their professional lives.”

The idea for the conference came in the form of an email, in which Boesky asked Carsky, Dryer, Sokol, and Raposo, who were all in the same Introduction to Medical Humanities class, if they would be interested in organizing the event.

Ernst, who had previous experience preparing a conference for her graduate class, helped to call for submissions, book a venue, and handle finances. The speakers selected to present at the conference are a diverse group consisting of both undergraduate and graduate students from BC and other institutions.

“Considering what the minor is and what the students want to get out of the experience, the event will be useful to both our students and students at other schools,” Ernst said. “It’s a personal narrative-driven conference—they can appreciate the breadth of projects and share in other people’s experiences, which will hopefully open up discussion and dialogue.”

Carsky emphasized that medical humanities is what the individual makes of it. “For those who’ve never had the exposure to medical humanities, it’ll be a really neat opportunity to see how much more there is to medicine,” she said.

As indicated by its title, the conference is centered on three themes. The first—“Body: Living with Adversity”—features panelists Kyle Carr and Saljooq Asif, MCAS ’15. Carr, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at BC, previously worked with individuals diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication among the nerves within the brain and throughout the body. His research interests in medical sociology and aging, along with his knowledge of MS, inspired his presentation, entitled “‘MS Warriors’: The Idiosyncratic Identity Process for Individuals Diagnosed with MS.” Asif is currently pursuing a master’s degree in narrative medicine at Columbia University. His background in health journalism, interest in the media’s portrayals of race, gender, and socioeconomic class in regard to health care, and ABC Family’s Switched at Birth inspired his presentation, entitled “Neither Illness nor Disability: Deaf Gain in ABC Family’s Switched at Birth.”

The second theme, “Voice: Cultural Perceptions of Illness,” features artwork by Karolina Mieczkowska, MCAS ’17, writing by Derek McCracken, and photography by Emily Simon, MCAS ’15. Mieczkowska will present “Staring,” a personal narrative based on her experience with a benign tumor. A medical humanities minor, Mieczkowska plans to become a physician and works to maintain a literary presence along with her regular science classes. McCracken is currently pursuing a master’s degree in narrative medicine at Columbia University and uses public health narratives as a platform to advocate for marginalized communities and victims of sexual assault.

His presentation, entitled “Checking in on the Czech: Macho Medicine Metaphors in ‘The Prostate Czech’ PSA” raises awareness about men’s sexual health. Simon, a Ph.D. candidate in English at BC and account management executive for Emerald Group Publishing in Cambridge, is interested in the search for identity and the portrayal of the female body in 20th-century American literature and visual art. Her presentation, entitled “‘Very little is about their everyday lives’: Terminal Illness and The Everyday in Nixon’s AIDS Photography,” features work by photographer Nicholas Nixon chronicling the struggle to find one’s identity in everyday life.

The third theme, “Narrative: Health Care Experiences,” features poetry from Colleen Brady, MCAS ’16, Sarah Ramsey, CSOM ’18, and McCracken about their experiences handling illness face-to-face. Brady uses creative writing as a reflective outlet.

Her volunteer work with children, the elderly, and the homeless was the inspiration for her presentation, entitled “What Matters in the End,” a poem about the stages of dying based on her volunteer experience in hospice care. Ramsey is an editor for the BC Medical Humanities Journal and runs a food blog named Sweet Olympia. She plans to pursue a health career in nutrition and exercise and will present her poetry on aging and the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

McCracken will present “A View from the 25th Floor,” a series of poems on chronic illness.

What began as a collaborative effort among BC faculty has begun to bear fruit in the form of student-led initiatives promoting the medical humanities to a greater audience.

“I’m excited by the way in which the students have been able to do innovative program planning,” Boesky said. “That’s where the interdisciplinary work really happens.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Saljooq Asif. The article has been updated.

Photos Courtesy of Katie Carsky

April 4, 2016