Drama and medicine have united at the UC Davis Medical Center, and this is no “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Struck by the disconnect between doctor and patient, medical student Kabir Matharu, literary scholar Jessica Howell and medical practitioner Faith Fitzgerald organized extracurricular dramatic study groups for medical students interested in learning to relate and connect with their patients. The groups meet informally every week.
To get a sense of how suffering characters behave, the group reads and acts out scenes from dramatic plays. With the help of Howell, Matharu chose scenes dealing with suffering and death from King Lear, A Long Day’s Journey into Night and Angels in America.
Scenes of pain and grief are meant to teach medical students how to relate to their patients with empathy and understanding, qualities the three coordinators agree can be lacking from modern medicine.
Matharu plans to use these studies to draw broader conclusions about the interplay of medicine and the humanities. In a presentation of video recordings from group sessions to medical professionals, he will observe their responses to suffering characters in the context of different time periods and cultures.
These responses will be used to draw conclusions about whether exposure to cross-cultural responses to suffering improves a doctor’s medical practice. His findings will then be submitted to a medical journal.
Matharu, a second-year medical student, became inspired to combine the humanities with medicine after the death of his mother, who received mixed diagnoses throughout her illness that led her to mistrust the medical community.
“From personal experiences I felt that there were cultural barriers in the medical community,” Matharu said.
Matharu agreed that persisting stereotypes of emotionally detached doctors and nurturing nurses have a degree of truth to them.
“There is a lack of understanding in the medical community and it’s hard to say if it is socially or culturally engendered,” he said.
Since 2005, when Howell was a graduate student of English literature at UC Davis, she and Dr. Fitzgerald studied the application of literature to medicine. Then in 2007, they began conducting interdisciplinary research groups, which focused on portrayals of illness in literature, images of illness in graphic arts and the history of medical practice.
“In medicine, you need to be able to see the whole person in able to make an accurate diagnosis. In both disciplines [medicine and English], we have to practice close reading and close listening,” Howell said, comparing thoroughly reading a story before judging a subtext to listening to a patient before diagnosing.
As a fervent believer in connecting with her patients, Dr. Fitzgerald routinely makes rounds to visit her patients at 2 or 3 a.m. when the quiet of the late night hospital allows her to sit at their bedsides. Observing body language, interacting with family members and discussing the patient’s feelings are important steps to ensuring that the patient receives an accurate diagnosis.
Dr. Fitzgerald, Howell and Matharu’s involvement in introducing literature and drama to medicine is part of a growing trend across the nation found in medical humanities programs. This program seeks a half-way point at which both disciplines can gain from the interaction.
“All three of us are devoted to keeping medicine human,” Howell said.
GABRIELLE GROW can be reached at email@example.com.