The Art of Nursing

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“Array” 1999, cut and fabricated aluminum, by Irene Pijoan. Harborview Medical Center. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign /2015.

Entering week seven of a nine week narrative medicine/health humanities course I’m teaching to a group of nurses at Harborview Medical Center. This is my third summer teaching this course, but my first time teaching it in a hospital setting. This is also the first time I have taught it to a class of experienced and currently working RNs.

I’ve always focused on introducing students to the practice of narrative medicine, of learning to apply Dr. Rita Charon’s close reading drill, and of expanding that to include my ‘closer close reading drill‘ to various forms of literature. This year I kept those elements, but have added art to the course.

It helps that we are surrounded by amazing artwork throughout the Harborview Medical Center complex. Even in (and outside of) the otherwise functional-looking Research and Training Building where our classroom is located, there are the art installations shown in these photographs. “Array”depicts cerebellar neurons, tied to a Harborview research emphasis of neurology and also “metaphorically mimics the scientific process itself”–according to the placard beside this piece. At the building’s entrance is “Integument” representing the leadership of Harborview in the treatment of burns and trauma. And, according to the placard, “The integument motif also metaphorically references the cutting through the outermost surface of the building, implying that it too functions as an extended body.”

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“Integument” 1999, cut and fabricated aluminum, by Irene Pijoan. Harborview Medical Center. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

As part of their small group presentations on topics such as death/dying, disability, and racism in health care, I have students include a piece of Harborview art that speaks to them about some aspect of their topic for their class presentation. I also had my colleague, poet, psychotherapist, and educator Suzanne Edison lead the class in an exploration of ekphrastic poetry.

While the students have been open to the inclusion of art in this health humanities course, there is one in-class art activity I added this year that seems to have engaged them the most. It was a blind contour drawing activity that I learned from Drs. Catherine Belling and Martha Stoddard Holmes in a workshop at the Health Humanities: The Next Decade conference this past May at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. As Belling and Holmes pointed out, this activity includes art (the doing/drawing) and humanities (refection/writing).

Here’s how it works: 1) have students pair up and sit face-to-face, 2) each student has a blank piece of paper and a pen/pencil, 3) each student looks at their partner’s face for two minutes, while drawing their face on their paper–without looking down at the paper, 4) after drawing (and laughing) and then showing their portraits to their partner, each student writes for 4-5 minutes–reflecting on what the experience was like for them, and exploring whether they were more more uncomfortable being observed or doing the observing–and why.

This in-class activity led to much laughter, but also to a rich class discussion of the experience and its connections to their work as nurses. The best kind of classroom learning activity: fun, engaging, profound.

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