Engaging with and studying the humanities can help us give better patient care. Literature, art, and history remind us that patients are whole persons with lives that exist beyond medical problems.
“I’m no fool, I know I haven’t much time left.” The words came naturally to him, as if he’d said them to friends and family time and again on this very spot. It was late summer, and we sat in wooden rocking chairs on his porch in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore County, Maryland. He turned and looked out across the road as the sun gathered in the concavity atop his temporal bone.
Every fiber of my being screamed at me to reassure him, to contradict him, to say he had years left, maybe even decades of life. I wanted to lie to him even though I knew this man with treatment-resistant metastatic cancer was right; to comfort us both with a banal illusion.
Legend has it that Dr. William Osler prescribed a reading list to his students, books not only about physiology and science, but classic literature. He was able to see that “Don Quixote” and “Gray’s Anatomy” both had indispensable value to a physician.
As healthcare professionals, we hear countless stories: tales of pain, joy, fear, regret, love, courage, life, and death. The stories we hear daily in clinics and on wards are the same stuff of great works in literature, history, and art. We see our patients through these brief snippets that they attempt to tell us, and we must respond to them the best we can even without knowing the whole picture. Clinicians may need to know science, but our daily trade is made of these human arts.
When I sat on the porch with my patient, I reminded myself to see him not as a compilation of diagnostic tests, nor a complex collection of organ systems, much less a rational animal tired and terminal. I looked at him as a man in full, as an integrated human person with an infinitely complex story who lives and who will die, one in a long line of real and fictional persons who have done the same. I reflected that I, too, am part of that same line.
I didn’t lie to him. I didn’t lie to him because when you engage seriously and deliberately with our cultural heritage, whether that be film, fiction, history, or any other form of art, you start to see life, and by extension death, in fuller context. Death, medicine’s apparent nemesis, isn’t evil but rather a continuum, a part of everyone’s story. We can forget that when we only hear the tiny snippets our patients have time to tell during a short visit.
The humanities improve our care of patients by reminding us of the whole story: with each page read or image perceived comes another lesson in the great drama of life. The seemingly endless stream of patients starts to seem less like a list of problems to be solved, and more like whole persons who are loved. The former are nails to be hammered, the latter only can be walked with.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.