The Importance of Being Human(ities)

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Restroom sign at the University of Washington’s Intellectual House. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

All of our current ‘wicked problems’ such as racism, homelessness, environmental issues, human gene editing, violence against women, mass murders, and terrorism, cannot be addressed constructively by science or technology. As the late Donald Schon wrote:

“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.” (Schon, D.A. “Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology,” 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.)

In order to muck through the swampy wicked problem areas, we need–more than ever–the humanities. Before we continue down the path of denigrating the humanities (Rubio wanting more welders/less philosophers) and decimating university programs in the humanities, we need to ask ourselves if this is who we want to be–both individually and collectively. Where would we be without grounding in history, language, literature, comparative religion, philosophy, ethics, archeology, the theory/philosophy of law, and the criticism/theory of art? The excellent short (7 minute/ June 2013) video “The Heart of the Matter” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences explores this question. “No humanities? No Soul,” George Lucas states. 

William ‘Bro’ Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), gave a speech this past week at the University of Washington’s newly opened (and gorgeous) Native American center, called the Intellectual House. Adams reminded us that both the NEH and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, are 50 years old this year. In 1965, President Johnson signed the act designating both the NEH and the NEA, and he made them a central part of the Great Society.

Adams was, of course, ‘preaching to the choir’ in that most of the audience consisted of academic-types from the different disciplines traditionally considered the humanities. I didn’t recognize anyone else from the health sciences, and none of the audience members asking questions identified themselves as being from science or technology fields. This was disappointing, although not surprising. After all, even physically the UW’s Intellectual House is surrounded by buildings that house the humanities and is a far trek from health sciences or any of the science and technology buildings. But as Adams emphasized towards the end of his talk, there’s a great need to increase the intersection of the humanities with science/technology/medicine (health sciences more broadly). The humanities bring the important tools of reflection. Reflection on what it means to be human. Reflection of what it means to be a citizen.

Gratitude for Mentors

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Dr. Lorna Mill Barrell (1931-2014), a nursing mentor of mine, after lunch in the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia in 1996.

We now have the ‘science of gratitude’ to back what we’ve already known: gratitude is good for us, both individually and collectively. That we have a national holiday named for gratitude is something that–despite the complicated colonization and empire-building historical roots–I am thankful for.

Over the past four months, I have had the privilege of interviewing a variety of people in the Seattle area who work (or live) at the intersection of health and homelessness. These interviews are part of the oral history component of my ongoing Skid Road project, exploring the historical roots of ‘charity’ health care in King County, Washington (the county within which Seattle is located). One of the first open-ended interview questions I pose to people is, “Who or what has most influenced your work and life?”

People I interview typically pause for a moment after I ask this question, they gaze at some corner of the room as if seeing pleasant ghosts, and then they launch into detailed descriptions of people and events essential to who they are as people and to the work they do. Most people identify one or two key people in their lives who provided a sort of moral compass steering them in the direction of compassion–for their own humanity, as well as for other people. Parents. Teachers. Counselors or therapists. Professional mentors. They can easily tell a specific story of lessons they learned from these key people. And due to my use of snowball sampling–asking them to identify people I should try to interview–I have been able to complete oral history interviews on several generations of mentors.

These interviews have led me to reflect more deeply on the people in my life I am grateful for, people who have influenced who I am and what I do. I am also reminded of the wisdom of Rachel Naomi Remen, MD and her healing work with physicians, nurses, and other caregivers. I often introduce my students to her Heart Journal daily practice. For this, she advocates a 10-15 minute quiet time at the end of the day where you review your day, then write the first things that occur to you when you ask yourself three questions: 1) What surprised me today? 2) What moved me or touched my heart today?, and 3) What inspired me today?  Attention and gratitude.

As a nurse and a teacher, I remember two people who have had the most influence on my work, my life. One is Lorna Mill Barrell, RN, PhD who came into my life when I was seriously considering dropping out of nursing school. It was in November of 1983, my final year of the BSN program at MCV/VCU, and I had just been informed by my community health clinical instructor that she was giving me an ‘F’ on my final clinical rotation project paper. “I don’t see how this has anything to do with nursing,” she wrote across my project paper’s title, “The Health of Richmond’s Homeless Population.” I contested her grade and that’s how I met Lorna, who was the chair of the department my instructor worked in–she was my instructor’s boss.

I remember Lorna’s welcoming and nonjudgmental attitude towards me when I came into her office to meet with her about my grade. I’m sure I came across at first as indignant, haughty, and angry. At the time, I wasn’t just contesting my community health grade, I was also contesting my desire to be a nurse at all. She offered to read and re-grade my paper. Thanks to her intervention, I not only passed community health (she changed my paper grade to an ‘A’), but she helped convince me to finish nursing school and go straight into their master’s program for becoming a nurse practitioner. She was my thesis advisor and the co-author of my first published academic journal article. Within a year of graduating and starting my first job as a nurse practitioner working with homeless and marginalized patients at Cross-Over Clinic, Lorna hired me to teach a community health clinical course.

The other mentor I draw on as inspiration for my current work is another MCV/VCU teacher–from the medical school though–who I only remember as Chaplain Bob. During my first semester of the BSN program, fresh out of a brief stint in a MDiv medical humanities program, I convinced him to let me take his medical school elective course on death and dying. He approached this topic in our small seminar-style class, from a health humanities perspective, having us read and discuss Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, among other works of art and literature. He also encouraged us to write our own poetry and short stories. I took that assignment seriously and wrote a chapbook-length collection of poetry. Chaplain Bob gave me an ‘Aa’ (not entirely sure what that grade really is) for the course, but he also enthusiastically encouraged me to continue my creative, reflective writing. I kept that chapbook. And here, impossibly at age twenty-two (meaning–not that it is great poetry but that is impossibly so long ago) , I wrote:

The Process

Sitting by the hour/ listening to the drone: “The Patient. The Client./And don’t forget the Significant Others./ By all means, keep in mind the Nursing Process.”

“We’re training you to be/ Professionals./ We want you to think/ Independently./ Here, take this test/But don’t think too much/just fill in the dots/the computer will understand.”

We learn to forget,/ to not feel, to not know./ It will hurt too much,/ and it certainly won’t help /us to be professionals.

and…

Waiting 

Sitting on park benches/writing their hands/trying to forget the ill one inside/that hospital there/ the building you just stepped out of/ the one you walk by every day/ that structure that has become/ a part of the skyline/ seen from the window of a dorm room.

It is a lab/a place to practice/the proper way/to give drugs/ to make beds/to become a nurse.

But reflected in the eyes/of the park-bench individuals/ the building becomes/ one room/one bed/one person/one fear/one hope.

____   To all my mentors, named and unnamed (and in Bob’s case, half-named): thank you. Remember to pass it on.

 

 

 

Carrying Stories: Beyond Self Care

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Girl with Balloon, street art by Banksy. This one found at intersection of K-Road and Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

What to do with difficult stories? Stories of refugees, victims of mass shootings, of hate crimes, of rape, of torture victims, of people dying alone and unnoticed ?  It all gets overwhelming and depressing to hear or read these sorts of difficult stories, to carry them in our hearts, to bear witness to so much suffering in the world.

Of course, for many fortunate (perhaps unfortunate?) people, there is the option of tuning out these stories, turning off the news, unplugging from any non-vacuous form of social media. Taking a break from difficult stories.

But what about all the other people who cannot or choose not to disconnect? What about people whose work involves listening to these stories on a daily basis? Frontline health care providers who work with people experiencing trauma (physical, emotional, sexual). First responders. Counselors, mental health therapists, lawyers. Human rights activists. Researchers working on social justice issues. What can they do to, if not prevent, at least deal effectively with, vicarious or secondary trauma? And for those of us who teach/train/mentor students in these roles, how do we prepare students to be able to carry difficult stories while maintaining well-being?

In a previous blog post, “Burnout and Crazy Cat Ladies,” I explored the issue of ‘too much empathy’ and of pathological altruism, linking to some of the (then/2011) current research. After writing that post and some related essays, I began incorporating a new set of in-class reflective writing prompts for soon-to-be nurses in my community/public health course. I used these in a class session I titled “Public Health Ethics, Boundaries, and Burnout.”

The first writing prompt: ‘What draws you to work in health care? What motivates or compels you to do this work?’ And then later in the class session– after discussing professional boundaries (how fuzzy they can be), individual and systems-level risk factors for burnout, and asking them to reflect on how they know when they are getting too close to a patient, a community, or an issue–I gave them the follow-up writing prompt: ‘Referring back to what you wrote about what draws you to work in health care, what do you think are the biggest potential sources of burnout for you? And what might you be able to do about them?’

Feedback from students about this in-class reflective writing exercise and the accompanying class content on boundaries and burnout, was invariably positive. Many of them said it was the first time in their almost two years of nursing education that anyone had addressed these issues. I understand that patient care, electrolyte balances, wound care and all the rest of basic nursing education takes priority, but it makes me sad that we don’t include this, to me what is fundamental and essential, content.

“…people who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout. Psychopaths don’t burn out. There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators. Only people who do care can get to this level of numbness,” Rachel Naomi Remen, MD reminds us in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996). Something to remember when we are feeling overwhelmed by difficult stories.

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Here are some excellent resources:

 

Creating Change

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Part of the timeline of slavery, racism and related issues. On the wall at entrance to UW Hogness Auditorium for the Health Sciences Service-Learning and Advocacy/Common Book Kick-off event, 10-6-15.

This past week at the University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book kick-off event, I heard a moving speech by Benjamin Danielson, MD. Dr. Danielson is Medical Director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, a Seattle Children’s community-based clinic in Seattle’s Central District, an area which because of ‘redlining’/racial segregation in Seattle’s history, had been a predominantly black neighborhood. (see the excellent short video “A Really Nice Place to Live” by Shaun Scott). Odessa Brown is co-located in a building with its sister clinic, Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, a clinic I worked at for five or six years. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Danielson while coordinating care for a teen with sickle-cell anemia, and I know first-hand what an exquisitely competent and compassionate physician he is. But this week was the first time I’d witnessed his powerful public speaking abilities.

Our UW Health Sciences Common Book this year is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Time of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). This is the fourth year we have had a UW Health Sciences Common Book, with interprofessional activities based on the book’s theme interspersed throughout the academic year. Previous books have been Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (a classic if not a bit ‘overdone’ by now), Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (great topic but his book is in need of heavy editing–he rambles), and last year’s book was Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (great topic but read like a doctoral dissertation–which it was). The New Jim Crow is written in an accessible, non-academic and powerful style, and is, of course, on a painfully current topic in the U.S. and one pertinent to health care inequities: racism.

Dr. Danielson started his talk by acknowledging the history of the Central District where he works, and the ‘strong black women,’ of the neighborhood’s past, Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs, for whom the two community clinics are named after. Both women advocated for quality and accessible health care for their communities. Odessa Brown, who had experienced racial discrimination in accessing health care, was active in starting a children’s clinic in the Central District before she died at age 49 of leukemia. Kudos to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic for including information on Odessa Brown (the woman) on their front webpage, in ‘Our History,’ right under ‘Our Mission.’

Carolyn Downs was part of the Seattle Black Panther movement, who with the financial help from people like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown (both from the Central District), in 1968 opened what was then the first health clinic in the community. Less of her history is included on the webpage for the clinic, but I know from having worked there and taking care of the daughter and granddaughter of Carolyn Downs, that she died young of breast cancer–and at least partially because of disparities in access to breast cancer screening and treatment.

I provide some of the history of both Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs because I admire the work they did during their too-short lives, and because–as Dr. Danielson said in his speech–this can become another example of “black people being deleted from history.”

What to do about the continued, pervasive, and destructive problem of racism in our society, including in our institutions ranging from prisons to hospitals and clinics? The main message from Dr. Danielson and Michelle Alexander (through her book) is that it will take both individual and collective action for us (for the U.S.) to create positive change. During his talk, Dr. Danielson spoke of using the companion community organizing guide to The New Jim Crow, titled Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide by Daniel Hunter (Veterans of Hope Project, 2015).

In chapter one of this guide, “Roles in Movement-Building,” Hunter references the terminology used by Bill Moyer in his book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (New Society Publishers, 2001) This work divides people’s roles into four main groups: 1) Helpers–direct service providers, 2) Advocates-who work to make systems work better for those in need, 3) Organizers–who bring people together to change systems, and 4) Rebels–who speak truth to power and agitate for radical change. The key is to recognize our own strengths and roles–where we are most comfortable working– but also to see the value in the rage of roles played by different people, because an effective social change movement requires people working in all of these roles.

This is similar to the “Bridging the Gap Between Service, Activism, and Politics” group activity from the Bonner training curriculum that I have used for many years when teaching community health. But (of course!) I like the addition of the category ‘Rebels’ to the mix and plan to add that the next time I use this in teaching.

On a very sobering (as if we weren’t already very sober) note, Dr. Danielson ended his talk Tuesday night by adding that for all the good work and innovative community outreach programs of the Odessa Brown Clinic, he often asks himself if they aren’t keeping children healthy enough that they too can end up in our country’s prison system.

Empowering Healthy Communities Through the Arts

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Mural by a student in the Henderson South Studio MPHS (after-school art program for young people ages 9-18). Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

“Art is the outward manifestation of human experience in the world. Art is necessary for survival. To be human and alive is to be an active art maker. Everything that humans create in their act of living is art.” -Tamati Patuwai, MAD AVE ‘Healthy and Thriving Communities’ Glen Innes, New Zealand

It was a happy accident, an unintended yet very welcome consequence of studying ‘how the Kiwis’ do community health from the ground (literally) up, from the community members’ perspectives. The recent experience has changed how I think about community health, has deepened my respect for the power of art (and libraries) to change lives, and has even altered how I view my own community back home in Seattle.

First, a brief recap of the experience to provide some perspective. What I’m referring to here is the recent University of Washington Study Abroad in New Zealand 5-week immersive program I co-led with Jim Diers, a social worker and internationally-acclaimed community development expert. Here is what our course description said about the study abroad program:

“Empowering Healthy Communities is an interdisciplinary Exploration Seminar in New Zealand, focusing on how various communities organize and advocate for overall health and wellbeing. In this seminar, we will combine community-engaged service-learning, community case studies, readings, reflective writing, student independent projects, and immersive living experiences, to challenge students to think more broadly and creatively about participatory democracy, civic engagement, sustainability, and the social determinants of health. This course is grounded in an international, community-engaged, service-learning format aimed at creating opportunities for transformational student learning. We will address the meanings of ‘diversity’ within global and local communities; issues of power and privilege; social justice; what it means to be civically engaged at the local and global levels; and the tensions and differences between tourism vs. travel, and community service vs. engagement.

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“The Oarsmen” wall mural on K-Road by Miriam Cameron, 2006. Part of the ‘Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms’ series. “The idea is we’re all in this together.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

New Zealand is an ideal location for this Exploration Seminar. The country has a unique blend of indigenous and immigrant cultures, and its people have a rugged, “number eight wire” can-do, and highly creative approach to solving individual and community problems. In 2014, New Zealand ranked number one in the Harvard Business School’s Social Progress Index for overall wellbeing, while the U.S. ranked number sixteen, just above Slovenia. New Zealand spends one-third less per person on health care than we do in the U.S., yet they have much better population health outcomes. How do they do it? That is one of the main questions we will ask and explore through our work and study in New Zealand. In addition, as New Zealand is a world leader in environmental sustainability efforts, we will challenge ourselves to go ‘as green’ as possible: living in youth hostels, recycling, walking and taking public transportation, and eating a mainly vegetarian diet for our group meals.”

As we discussed with the students at the beginning of our program, New Zealand slipped somewhat in the 2015 Social Progress Index, but is still in the top tier/top ten of the 133 countries with sufficient comparison data to include. In 2015 for the ‘Health and Wellness’ category, New Zealand ranked 9th and the U.S. ranked 68th. And somewhat ironically in light of our study abroad program, the U.S. ranks first world-wide in the Access to Advanced Education category, and is weakest in Health and Wellness and Ecosystem Sustainability. I tried to remind students of this fact, especially when some of them grumbled about the vegetarian meals and relying on public transportation.

Using connections through the amazing New-Zealand group Inspiring Communities, we focused our time on a variety of local community groups working to empower and improve the places they call home. The Central Business District/ Karangahape Road in Auckland. The Avondale and Henderson communities on the outskirts of Auckland. Devonport and Waiheke Island, both more affluent communities. The Ruapotaka marae in Glen Innes. Then south to the Wellington area communities of Porirua, Bromphore School, and Epuni. Consistent through all of these communities was an emphasis the community members placed on the use of the arts to catalyze positive change and to enable community wellbeing. That and public libraries, which community members treasured as being the heart and soul and ‘mind food’ of their communities. Places where true democracy happens. Places to “dream up and enact crazy ideas.” Places that nurture “the freedom to change.”

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Mural by schoolchildren at the true ‘community-building’ Berhampore Primary School, Wellington. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Art, including literary art, was literally everywhere we turned in these communities. And not just the typical government-sanctioned commissioned public art we are used to seeing in the U.S., but also much more grassroots , low barrier, “anybody can participate” community art shown in my photos in this post.

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A new version of “Girl with Balloon” street art by Bansky. On building on Karangahape (“K-Road”) Road, Auckland. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015
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P1010020 First photo is of poetry by young people at the Te Oro youth community arts center in Glen Innes. Second photo is a ‘cast off’ (in the trashcan) poem by a rough sleeper/Auckland Central Library ‘Poetry Corner.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

This sort of art not only beautified the communities, it also built community identity and promoted wellbeing. Walking around my hometown of Seattle this past week, I’ve been searching for similar sparks of community wellbeing through art and have had a hard time finding them. Yes, we do have some great bus shelter artwork, as well as some building and wall murals–and our public library system has been one of the best in the country (and hopefully will remain so despite a very silly rebranding effort), but I cannot find the same level of  empowering healthy communities through art. Perhaps this is an important ‘take home’ message, one we could use to improve community health and wellbeing in the U.S. More art, less guns.

 

 

The Exquisite Corpse Hits the Hospital

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“Imprint of the Intangible” Mixed media, 2000, Heather Hawley. University of Washington Medical Center.

The exquisite corpse is a French surrealist parlor game named after one of their first nonsensical collaborative sentences, “The exquisite corpse will drink new wine.”  There are written and arts-based (including drawing, collage, sculpture, theater, and dance) versions of the exquisite corpse. They all emphasize elements of unpredictability, collaboration, and tapping into unseen/subconscious sources of creativity. And just plain fun.

This summer I adapted the written version of the exquisite corpse for use in the hospital-based narrative medicine/health humanities course I am teaching. I first had students divide themselves into groups of 4-5 people, each person with a clean piece of paper. Then, I asked them to write one sentence across the top of the paper and base the sentence on one concrete observation about their classroom. I gave them 30 seconds to write the sentence and then asked them to pass their papers to their right. They had another 30 seconds to write a second sentence in response to the first. Before passing the paper again, they were asked to fold down the paper in order to hide the first sentence. We repeated this exercise a total of five times. At the end, they could unfold their papers, read, and share with the class what the group had come up with based on their initial sentence. Much laughter ensued. Then, I had each student write a short reflection on what the experience was like for them.

I learned this classroom version of the exquisite corpse at the 2015 Chuckanut Writers Conference from two writers/creative writing teachers, Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, who both teach at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Miller and Gulyas have a recent collaborative essay, “Come Closer,” published in Sweet: A Literary Confection (vol. 7, issue 3, 2015) and an intriguing interview by Carmella Guiol with them about this essay and their collaborative process (July 16, 2015). In their workshop, we were all writers of various sorts, and the prose/poetry pieces our groups came up with were quite funny, creative, and profound.

As were the pieces that my students produced, although they mostly were much more matter-of-fact and not as fanciful as I expected them to be. These were nurses after all–nurses tasked daily with life and death decisions. Flights of fancy and parlor games are typically frowned upon among health care providers. But, since teaching is in itself a creative endeavor, I try to take calculated risks in the classroom and try new things. For this one I’d give myself a B+ for effort.

Feedback from the students (from their written reflections) ranged from, “this felt like a drinking game” (note: no alcohol was consumed in the auditorium as far as I know), through “I don’t understand why we did this exercise,” to perhaps more insightful, critical thinking responses including these:

“Even though we are talking about the same topic we said or have different points of view about our classroom. How we described it is different person-to-person. This is common in workplaces, like when we have to write up patient care plans, we hardly agree on them.”

“I enjoyed the spontaneity of doing this exercise. So much of our class work and assignments has been related to following directions exactly and making sure we are doing everything right.”

“I’m thinking this would be a good tool if I was leading a patient support group or leading a class. Patients with chronic illness get told all the time about what it the right thing to do and this could be used to let them tell their stories a different way.”

In thinking over how this went–my first attempt at doing the exquisite corpse exercise with a group of hospital-based nurses–I’ve realized I probably need to fine tune it for this setting and for these ‘parlor game’ players. Next time I would keep everything the same with the exception of the initial sentence writing prompt. Instead of having them write about their classroom, I’d ask them to write a sentence about a recent frustration at work–and that it can be a minor and seemingly frivolous frustration (in oder to keep it from getting too deeply emotional for this collaborative writing exercise). My aim would be to have it more directly pertinent to their work as nurses, while maintaining the fun, spontaneity, and collaborative nature of the exercise. As physician-educator and innovator in the health humanities Alan Bleakley says, “health humanities creates a serious play space.”

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.