Westmont Magazine The Healing Power of Stories
Some students in medical school are taking unusual subjects these days: classes in literature and medicine. To aid professors in this field, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre and Anne Hunsaker Hawkins of Penn State Medical School have co-edited a source book for medical educators, “Teach-ing Literature and Medicine.”
“Many doctors acknowledge that they need help communicating with patients,” Marilyn notes. “Studying literature and medicine can help physicians communicate more effectively and empathetically with their patients. They learn how to listen to people’s stories and understand the narratives in which illness occurs.”
The new book accomplishes three goals. Not only do contributors discuss ways to teach literature and medicine, but they examine how to interpret texts with medical themes. A third section suggests ways to tailor literature to medical school curricula.
“Studying literature can open up the language of medicine, so it is not bound solely to scientific terminology,” Marilyn says. “Developing a language of pain is particularly important as people often find it difficult to describe their suffering. There is great healing value in being able to name what is going on in your body.
“I believe it is possible to train doctors to develop empathetic imaginations,” she adds. “They are smart and motivated people, but medical education can be exhausting and wear away at com- passion. Keeping their imagination alive can help combat this problem.”
Marilyn became interested in the field because medicine was her “road not taken.” As a child, she devoured medical biographies, including stories of missionary doctors.
Years later, as an English professor in the Bay Area, she became acquainted with the growing body of literature by AIDS patients. Intrigued, she wrote a paper on the literature of AIDS for the Modern Language Association. She continued exploring similar themes and joined the board of Literature and Medicine, a professional journal published by Johns Hopkins University.
She contributes to an online database (http://endeavor.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/), reviewing novels, poems, film, and young adult fiction that tell stories about ill children. The Web site is popular with medical support groups.
Marilyn is on the board of the Center for Medicine, Humanities, and Law at UC Berkeley, where a joint medical program offers a selective, five-year program for medical students who graduate with an M.D. and an M.A. in social sciences or humanities.
Classes on literature and medicine also show up in the course listings of colleges and universities. At Westmont, Marilyn teaches it as often as she can, and likes to include English majors and pre-med students as well as others. She offers it as a tutorial to pre-med students who can’t fit it into their schedule.
She has also taught continuing medical education courses for doctors as well as adult education classes in churches focused on healing passages in Scripture.
Marilyn includes a variety of texts in her classes. Books like “The Plague” by Albert Camus and short stories like “The Mask of Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe deal explicitly with medical themes. So do the Sherlock Holmes stories and contemporary works like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, a book she recommends.
Given the highly politicized setting in which physicians practice medicine today, Marilyn sees value in studying literature. As she points out, “Stories are a great way to open up ethical issues — it’s an approach used very effectively in the Bible.”