Breakfast of Champions

Though I am late in submitting this report, my tardiness is not a reflection of my gratefulness to UNYOC for granting me the funding to attend the chapter’s 2018 annual conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Conscious of the fact that the winter season has already inched well into February, moving me another month past this event last November, I steeped a large mug of high-test Irish breakfast tea to fuel my thoughts and alight my fingers to the keyboard this morning.

Kilgore Trout, co-author.

The opening event of the conference, and highlight for me, was the keynote presentation given by Dr. Ellen Amster of McMaster University: Cat’s Cradle and the Clinical Trial: The Humanity of Medicine and the Humanities in Medicine. Her title reflects interviews she had with colleague and evidence-based-medicine pioneer David Sackett. A celebrated McMaster professor and clinician, Sackett was influenced by the ruminations of Kilgore Trout, a character who appears in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Trout is a science fiction author who writes of a world operating by new and different rules. Through the lens of Kilgore Trout, Sackett was inspired to see patient care and diagnosis from multiple perspectives and through different layers of reality and perception. He brought this vision to the crafting of the concept of evidence based medicine – his initial goal being social justice, devising a way to detect and reduce bias in clinical research. Sackett, known to have a strong sense of humor, was so enthralled by Trout that he went so far to list him as co-author of published journal articles!

Amster used her reflections on these conversations to bridge a discussion of Medical Humanities and the project she launched at McMaster – the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities Research Portal (medhumanties.mcmaster.ca).  Defined there as “an interdisciplinary field encompassing the humanities, social science, and the arts, in dialogue with healthcare education and clinical practice,” medical humanities can serve as “a vehicle for exploring the many dimensions of what it is to be human” and a tool to combat the burnout and loss of empathy that has developed in medical practice. Practitioners need to be able to respond humanely when confronted with human distress. Literature and the arts are a means of exploring and discussing human issues pertinent to the health professional and a way to develop the necessary sensitivity, empathy, and self-awareness for effective practice. (Smith)

I was engaged and excited by Amster’s talk. As a field of study, Medical Humanities is a new concept for me and, in the time since the conference, I have been exploring it further. I did what I always do in the face of unknowing….I started to read (ok, and Google) and found a corner of the interwebs that I had not yet explored. There is much to be enlightened by and I ask myself: what should my role be at this intersection between medicine, the arts and humanities, and the social context of medical care? How can I help enrich the studies and environment of the PT, OT, and PA students and faculty I support so they may more easily connect with the holistic aspects of their role in medical care and the ‘humanity in medicine’?

As a beginning venture, I am going to buy some books (always fun!).  As I was contemplating these things, a small amount of unexpected grant money serendipitously landed in my book budget. I’ve decided to dedicate those funds to enhancing our collection with relatable titles that are an expression of narrative medicine. House of God by Samuel Shem and The Illness Narrative by Arthur Kleinmen are two recommended by Amster that are on my list.  I’ve also included My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor), Being Mortal (Atul Gawande), When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi), Natural Causes (Barbara Ehrenreich), Music from Apartment 8 (poems by John Stone) and even Albert Camus’ The Plague. These will pair nicely with other books we have in a promotional display.

I was particularly inspired in my web wanderings by offerings in Stanford’s creative “Medicine and the Muse” program (med.stanford.edu/medicineandthemuse/about.html) and readings in The Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation (www.jhrehab.org). I plan to share some of my findings from these sources in my #wellnesswednesdays social media posts. I proposed the Health Sciences Library as an ideal place to host a series of lectures in History of Medicine organized by my university’s Humanities department. I’ve started a conversation with a friend who is the director of the art gallery at another nearby university about what connections we might make on behalf of the health science grad students. It took a while for some of these ideas to percolate in my brain, but that caffeine helped!  Amster’s talk launched me in a new direction and I am motivated and excited to move forward.

The conference gathering as a whole was rich in connections and conversation. I was impressed by the energy I saw in the work that library colleagues are doing, the issues and ideas they are advocating for and exploring. I came away inspired and empowered to expand on what I do. This is a small conference with a big impact, and I look forward to being part of it again next year.

Mary Cabral
Health Sciences Librarian
Clarkson University

Smith, S., Molineux, M., Rowe, N., & Larkinson, L. (2006). Integrating medical humanities into physiotherapy and occupational therapy education. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation13(9), 421-427.