Students explore medicine through the lens of the humanities
This story originally appeared in Carolina Arts & Sciences spring 2015.
Honors Carolina senior Natalie Deuitch spent one summer living in an alternative medicine clinic in India and another in a UNC biology lab, where she studied how two proteins interact to cause sporadic colon cancer.
The native of Boone is pursuing majors in biology and food studies, and an interdisciplinary honors minor in medicine, literature and culture — a minor just in its third year.
Last year, Deuitch was diagnosed with Celiac disease, so for her food studies thesis she is examining not only the biology of that disease, but its personal and societal implications.
“My brain is in a lot of different places,” Deuitch said, laughing. “I do very scientific research in the lab, but it’s cool to see how I think about things differently because of a literature background.”
When Deuitch traveled to Hyderabad to study ayurveda, a traditional Indian healing and wellness system, she wanted to find out how the treatment works on a biological scale. But, as she revealed in a post-experience essay, she found out so much more.
“The knowledge and all of the connections I made with patients and doctors have given me the insight to ask more questions about medicine, culture and healing in real life,” she wrote.
Both experiences, the Burch Fellowship in India and the William W. and Ida W. Taylor Honors Mentored Research Fellowship (under the guidance of biology professor Mark Peifer), were made possible by private support. Deuitch is interested in pursuing a career in public health or research.
This fall, Carolina will launch a new master’s curriculum in literature, medicine and culture. Faculty across the UNC School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences have been working on the development of the master’s for about seven years, and the undergraduate minor provided an opportunity to introduce students to the field.
Medicine, literature and culture are sometimes collectively referred to in the academy as medical humanities. Courses encourage students to examine medicine not only as a “scientific enterprise” but as a cultural practice embedded in changing ideas about disease, doctor-patient relationships and medical ethics.
“Medical humanities creates in students both an intellectual and an emotional capacity to recognize essential issues for the medical profession and to read texts they may not encounter elsewhere,” said Michele Rivkin-Fish, an associate professor in the department of anthropology, which has offered a medical anthropology minor for about 20 years. “They may be studying the body and its physiology and anatomy … but the human, social, cultural and spiritual [dimensions] are all a part of how you deal with a medical condition.”
Studying diseases in far-flung locales
Sophomore Kendall Flanigan of Atlanta is majoring in English and is on the pre-medicine track. She is also pursuing the minor in medicine, literature and culture. She spent last summer on a Burch Field Research Science Seminar in London taking companion courses focused on infectious disease. UNC professor Ann Matthysse taught the biology course, and Union College professor Andelys Wood taught the literature course.
Students pored over a map created by physician John Snow, who documented an 1854 cholera outbreak, and followed it to its geographic source. They learned about the plague, then visited the Museum of London to see artifacts such as beak-like cones containing incense that people wore to try to treat the disease.
Flanigan is interested in medical school, but also in possibly pursuing a graduate degree in medical humanities at King’s College London — one of UNC’s global partners — between her undergraduate and medical careers.
Sophomore Allie Polk envisions a career in public health. The Nashville, Tenn., native is not officially pursuing the minor, but she says a first-year seminar on “Doctors and Patients” taught by associate professor of English Jane Thrailkill is “her favorite class so far at Carolina.” The Office for Undergraduate Research provided funds for a Graduate Research Consultant to work with students in the class. (Thrailkill has also taught the gateway course to the minor.)
For the final project in Thrailkill’s class, students examined “The Faces of Illness” through in-depth study of an illness they selected. Polk literally went the extra mile for her assignment when she took a spring break trip with her dad to Carville, La., to visit the last center in America for treating leprosy, which is often referred to today as Hansen’s disease. The leprosarium, which closed in 1999, is now a military base and museum. Polk interviewed Simeon Peterson, the oldest surviving patient, who still lives there.
Polk also spent a summer in Kampala, Uganda, volunteering at an HIV/AIDS clinic.
“All of this has shown me the importance of compassion in medical care,” she said. “If you take the time to really speak with people and hear their stories, you’re going to be a much better caregiver.”
Emphasizing listening, critical reasoning, problem-solving
Thrailkill and Rivkin-Fish embraced the interdisciplinary focus of medical humanities and created and co-taught an Honors Carolina course together — “Narrative, Literature and Medicine” — in spring 2013.
“As the College and higher education more broadly are thinking about how we are preparing students for an uncertain world to come, these questions that we are interested in as scholars overlap —questions about careers, the meaning of life, sustainability and difficult decisions,” Thrailkill said.
Rick Stouffer, chief of cardiology in the UNC School of Medicine, teaches an honors course in the minor, “The Art of Medicine.”
Students explore topics such as medical ethics, poverty and how the U.S. health care system compares to other countries’.
Students are required to do half-day “observerships” — volunteering at a UNC cardiology lab or at clinics in Chapel Hill, Carrboro or Yanceyville, a rural community in Caswell County.
“In interventional cardiology, we deal with life and death decisions,” Stouffer said. “I think it helps students become more engaged and to realize that some day they may be making those decisions. These things are very complicated and nuanced, so no simple rule applies across all patients.”
UNC first-year medical student Helen Powell of Burlington, N.C., took Stouffer’s course as an undergraduate and found the experience invaluable to her understanding of life beyond hospital walls.
“A lot of undergraduates come to Carolina with a gung-ho attitude about going into medicine, but they’ve never been exposed to the softer side of medicine and what it means outside of just treating the pathology,” said Powell, who was en route to volunteer at the Samaritan Health Center Mobile Clinic at an apartment complex in Durham.
An exciting time for medical humanities at UNC
Award-winning writer Terrence Holt is an assistant professor of social and geriatric medicine and an adjunct assistant professor of English and comparative literature. He has an MFA and Ph.D. in creative writing and British literature, respectively, and an M.D.
His most recent book, Internal Medicine: A Doctor’s Stories, was featured last fall on NPR’s Science Friday.
Holt first proposed an autobiographical writing workshop for second-year medical students about a decade ago. He will team up with associate professor of English Jordynn Jack to lead the new master’s curriculum.
He thinks UNC is well-positioned to become a leader in this field.
“Whether you’re simply intellectually curious and want to do original independent research in a burgeoning interdisciplinary field, or whether you’re working to become the kind of caring clinician we need our doctors to be … study in this field gives you an extraordinary advantage,” Holt said.
Thrailkill agrees. She tells students: “‘This is now your world. You need to go out and make it better.’ And the humanities are really good at that.”
By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88 for Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine.