Top physician fosters empathy in medicine

courtesy of TEDxAtlanta

 At some point, you’re bound to get sick. Your body will refuse to do the simple tasks it had no problem doing yesterday. If you make it to the doctor’s, it can be hard to say what went wrong when the rapid-fire list of diagnostic questions the physician asks don’t seem relevant.

On Thursday, Nov. 19, celebrated literary scholar and physician Dr. Rita Charon will give a lecture on the rapidly growing field of Narrative Medicine that she largely founded.

Charon is the Founder and current Director of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Literature and Med­icine and has won numerous awards, including the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Award for Outstanding Wom­an Doctor of the Year.

Charon’s lecture at 6:00 p.m. to­day in Taylor Hall will focus on writ­ing as a healing art. She was invited to campus by Professor of English Michael Joyce. In reply to his invitation, Dr. Charon wrote, “What you are doing at Vassar…is exactly the kind of con­gruence and confluence that we find in Narra­tive Medicine, letting adjoining continents blur their boundaries.”

Interdisciplinary study is at the center of Charon’s work, which seeks to alter the way medicine is taught and practiced. In her words, “The creative, the clinical, the private, the in­tersubjective, the aesthetic, the scientific are really, really all going on not just at the same time but beholden to one another.”

Because Charon’s work blurs the boundaries between disciplines, she attracts a rather intel­lectually-diverse Vassar audience. Lanbo Yang ’15, who will attend today’s lecture, took the pre-med track while majoring in English with a minor in French.

Yang’s interest in Dr. Charon’s work started with an independent study on Narrative Medi­cine with Professor of English Leslie Dunn.

During the study, Yang had the chance to read Dr. Charon’s book on Narrative medicine, which he believed showed a new side to doc­tors. “I was not only moved by her sensitivity to patient narratives and her commitment to ethical and humanistic patient-centered care, but I also felt optimistic and hopeful that the field of medicine is changing,” Yang said after reading Dr. Charon’s book and watching one of her TED talks.

Yang is seeking a degree in medicine, and Charon’s work is not only a positive force, but an inspiring one for him. Yang said, “It gave me hope that I had the ability to participate in that change, the push for narrative medicine, in medical school.”

As the Founder of the Columbia Program in Narrative Medicine, Charon’s work is in many ways revolutionary to the field as a whole. Her lecture’s focus on narrative as healing high­lights the importance of empathy in doctor-pa­tient relationships.

Joyce is currently teaching a seminar on nar­rative healing. In anticipation of Charon’s arriv­al, he said, “It is always exciting to witness a live intelligence and active engagement in any field, and especially when it is so beautifully crafted as in Dr. Charon’s body of work (the pun only half-intended but almost inevitable).”

English major Jocelyn Hassel ’16, who will attend the lecture as part of Joyce’s class, Nar­rative Healing, explained what the current standards of bedside manner were and how Dr. Charon is advocating to change them.

She said, “There seems to be this objective way of looking at the patient. In other words, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m feeling and you’ll tell me what I have.’ So it’s sympathetic in a sense, like, ‘I know what your going through, but as a pro­fessional I’m going to tell you.’ Hassel made it clear that the current model of doctor-patient relationships was a sympathetic, not an empa­thetic one.

Narrative medicine could create an entirely new type of relationship between doctors and their patients. She continued, “With Rita Char­on and other writers that we’ve read, instead the idea is like, ‘tell me the underlying reasons for why these symptoms are happening,’ which produces empathy and strengthens the rela­tionship.” Hassel said.

Charon’s work is not purely theoretical. Women in Science at Vassar College (WSVC), a student group co-founded by Neila Kline ’16 and Emory Werner ’16, supported the event in part for Charon’s ideas about doctor-patient re­lationships.

In the words of Kline, “Medicine is not limit­ed to an objective interaction but can transcend to a more personalized form of care, both on the receiving and the giving ends. This style of practice helps to create mutual understanding and trust.”

As a clinician, Charon has personal experi­ence utilizing these techniques in addition to styling them. In a letter to me, Yang mentioned his excitement to hear from someone who has real experience, “I’m looking forward to the advice she has for students who are interested in the humanities and the sciences and want to synthesize them to create a more humanistic model of medicine.”

Joyce, who was the first to reach out to Dr. Charon about giving a lecture, underscored Yang’s hopes by his characterization of Dr. Charon’s work.

He said, “Dr. Charon’s life work, both as a healer and a gifted reader and interpreter of literature, involves attending to the full being of others through their stories as well as—or, indeed, as constitutive of—their embodiment.” Joyce’s emphasis on Charon’s humanistic mode of being should give Yang and others like him hope for what advice they might receive at the lecture.

Like Charon, Joyce both practices and teach­es the multidisciplinary study of empathy. Re­cently in class, Joyce employed a series of exer­cises intended to help students build empathy with one another. One exercise involves build­ing a conceptual map based on what one class member perceives of another. In a different ex­ercise, students take turns holding each other’s styloid bone on the wrist, while students write in the air.

A member of his writing seminar, Sarah King ’16, found Joyce’s focus on empathy in the class­room very effective. She said, “Empathy asks a person to be in tune with what’s happening at that moment with another human or multiple humans or the self.”

King sees also how the technique might be used outside of the classroom. She said, “The focus on empathy can help doctors retain their humanness in their work ethic.”

For students interested in learning more about the role empathy and healing play in nar­rative and creative writing, Charon, with the help of Director of Fellowships and Prehealth Advising Lisa Kooperman and Director of Ca­reer Development Stacy Bingham, has offered a workshop on Friday, Nov. 19 entitled, “Do­ing Narrative Medicine: A Workshop in Close Reading & Creative Writing.”

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