Some Reflections on Literature & Medicine

by Martin Newhouse

Martin NewhouseOn June 26, 2007, the last session of this year’s Literature & Medicine seminar at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, will meet to discuss Never Let Me Go, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. As the seminar’s facilitator, I chose this work in order to end with what I hope will be a thoughtful, informative, and ultimately moving discussion about the potential impact of science and technology on our society and on human nature itself. Based on my almost three years’ experience with the participants in Literature & Medicine at Lahey, I know that even if these are not the specific issues we touch upon and the discussion takes off in ways that I can’t even imagine, it will be an experience that I will treasure.

Unlike the other facilitators of Literature & Medicine in Massachusetts, I am also a member of MFH’s Board of Directors. I volunteered for this “assignment” primarily because I was inspired by a program presented on Literature & Medicine at a Board meeting several years ago. I was emboldened to do so because of past experience as a teacher of cultural history at the college level. Like all Literature & Medicine facilitators, I have benefited enormously from the very helpful training provided by the Maine Humanities Council, where I met many other facilitators who are conducting this program in several states.

My experiences at Lahey have made me a passionate supporter of this program. From my perspective Literature & Medicine yields tremendous results. Of utmost importance is the fact that, unlike the other wonderful public humanities programs that MFH supports, Literature & Medicine delivers humanities content directly to people at their workplace. I think that we often don’t recognize that, with respect to public humanities programs, people at their places of work may well collectively make up a truly underserved community, since sadly the humanities hardly ever make an appearance in the workplace. One of the strengths of Literature & Medicine is that it combats this, by offering the hard-working individuals at the Lahey Clinic and the other hospitals where the program thrives a relatively convenient opportunity to study, read, and involve themselves with the humanities precisely because it occurs at their workplace right after work hours. Thus, people can come directly to the program, delay their journey home by a mere one or two hours, and spend time that they would otherwise probably never be able to spend with challenging works of literature, history, social science and analysis.

The opportunity for reading, reflection and discussion provided by the monthly Literature & Medicine seminar helps these busy professionals and workers focus on issues that they may not have had time or opportunity to ponder on their own. It does this by providing readings that cover various aspects of the practice and experience of medicine, from both the caregiver’s and the patient’s perspective, as well as larger issues of the human experience. These readings come in various forms—novels, short stories, poems, essays, memoirs, histories—thereby providing a kaleidoscope of perspectives on issues, some of which may be familiar, but are viewed in a new way, others of which may be new. In May of this year we read three short stories by Chekhov (himself a doctor) and one short story by Hemingway; most were on medically related subjects, raising questions ranging from the limits of a doctor’s duty of loyalty to his patient to the limitations on medicine’s ability to improve the human condition. Unintentionally on my part, this last theme echoed our February readings on the influenza pandemic after World War I, which we dealt with in two remarkable works of the literary imagination, Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows.

Another real benefit of Literature & Medicine at Lahey and elsewhere is that it brings together individuals from different parts of the healthcare profession, and in that way improves communication and understanding. My sense is that Lahey is already a fairly well-integrated community. But during my training in Maine I came to realize that the hospital setting in general is one of the most hierarchical around, and that it was perhaps only in the Literature & Medicine seminar setting that nurses, doctors, social workers, secretaries, and others actually got to communicate across hierarchical lines with each other outside of their normal roles. I note in this connection that last year, for example, one of the van drivers at Lahey participated in our seminar. Two years ago and again this year, we have had participation by a chaplain at Lahey. In our seminar, all sorts of people who might not normally cross paths outside of work (doctors, nurses, and the van driver, for example) and might not normally communicate in anything but a strictly professional sense are talking to each other about vital issues of medicine, healthcare policy, and even life’s most wrenching situations.

This leads me to what I consider to be the primary (and at the same time the most intangible) virtue of the program. Both the humanities input—the poetry, fiction, history, and analysis about medical issues, disease, communication, tragedy, and so forth—and the cross-department nature of the dialogue are bound, in my view, to improve the ability of the participants to deal with their everyday lives, and hence will have a positive effect on the delivery of health services at Lahey and any other hospital where the program is conducted. Those services, of course, are delivered to individuals from all walks of life and all economic strata.

Whether or not making medical professionals better at what they do was the original goal of the program, I see it as a real achievement in my monthly sessions. Not only are the participants made more sensitive to what they must face when, for example, they read extraordinary poetry about AIDS sufferers or recent works on lack of communication in the medical field and how doctors make mistakes, or the memoir of a parent who has had a sick child or suffered a suicide in the family; they also learn a tremendous amount from and about each other and their respective fields. Thus, doctors listen to what social workers say about their experiences and vice versa; psychiatrists trade impressions with oncologists, lab technicians, and chaplains. Ophthalmologists share their own experiences with secretaries, other doctors, and, occasionally, a van driver. How can this not improve the quality of the medical and other care that these individuals provide to patients?

As I look back over my three years facilitating the Literature & Medicine seminar at Lahey, certain moments inevitably stand out. These are the times when a particular work under discussion set our group on fire, and we knew that, just as we probably had done as undergraduates gripped by an intense idea, we could have gone on talking all night, except that we each had other responsibilities to which we had to attend. I am thinking of our discussions of Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face, William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis, Jonathan Franzen’s essay “My Father’s Brain,” and Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind, among others. But my strongest feeling as I survey the work that we have done at Lahey is a sense of gratitude to the participants in the Literature & Medicine seminar, who warmly welcomed me to their midst, opened up to me their thoughts and feelings about some of the most important issues affecting not only medical science but also the human heart, and in doing so immeasurably enriched my life, as I hope our discussions and the works we have read have also enriched their lives.


©2007 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published Mass Humanities, Fall 2007