Clenching my teeth, squinting my sweat-soaked eyes and desperately sprinting with the oxygen bag hoisted over my shoulder, I thundered into the house from which we received a cardiac arrest call for a Mr. Donovan. As I assembled the bag-valve-mask, the two emergency medical technicians whom I was shadowing immediately performed CPR. But, at the same time, they casually chatted about what they were going to have for lunch that day while a grieving wife and crying children looked at their daddy who wouldn’t wake up.
While working in emergency medical service for the past two years, I’ve noticed that some healthcare providers use reductive language to talk about their patients, looking at them merely as the sum of their ailments rather than as people. Studying visual art and art history trains me to see a patient’s narrative, not just his symptoms. I want to encourage the medical community to “see people” first before their illness.
Although I’m a premed at Yale, I also major in art history. There is considerable medical merit to a liberal arts education. By taking art history courses across different regional and chronological categories, I learn more about what is important to particular cultures and civilizations than what I could learn in any anatomy class. There isn’t just a personal dividend that comes with this knowledge — art history empowers me to connect with a broad demographic of patients. A good art historian must constantly ask questions when confronted with a work of art. Why did the artist do this and not that? Why does this make me feel the way I do? It’s unlikely that knowing how W. Eugene Smith uses “punctum” in his photography will ever directly help me diagnose a patient. But this process challenges me to feel deeply, listen powerfully and see sharply. It cultivates empathy for my patients.
I believe medicine is already heading in this direction. At the Yale School of Medicine, all first-year students take a class at the Yale Center for British Art in which they deduce diagnostic information about people in Victorian paintings without museum labels. After spending afternoons sitting in on this class and “diagnosing” individuals in the artworks, I’ve learned there is an art to observation in medicine that enables me to compile more fully developed stories from patients.
According to “cookbook” medicine, the it’s-in-the-protocol recipe of medical interventions that is often practiced, I was taught to walk into that house and “see” an unresponsive, supine 41-year-old Caucasian male on Lanoxin for congestive heart failure. But I saw more than that: He was a married man with three beautiful children, a child of God. He was a work of art worthy of the most compassionate care.
There’s something precious about health, especially in its absence, that deserves a holy, reverential silence. This family could’ve been left shattered, the mother widowed, the children fatherless. EMTs must react with the gravity of this hypothetical in mind. People call for an ambulance when they are most desperate for help. It is important that healers keep hope aglow and show patients that they deserve medical treatment that upholds respect and dignity.
Privileged with monumental power to don gloves and lay hands on strangers who immediately grant me their trust — often in their darkest hour, at their most frightened, before I even know their name — I have a responsibility to deliver patients from harm.
Art history has coached me to respect the vulnerability of others with my eyes, to speak softly with my hands and to be present with my patients. As I enter medicine, I will always remember Mr. Donovan and how tightly his hand gripped mine. After the ambulance ride with countless chest compressions and ventilations, my hand had been in his long enough for me to forget there was ever a space between our spirits. Wheeling Mr. Donovan into the piercingly bright emergency room, where the noisy chaos widened his eyes with fear, I quietly used my training — learned from Science Hill and the YCBA — to comfort him. Still sweaty under my uniform from sprinting into his house just twenty minutes earlier, I noticed him smiling back up at me through his non-rebreather mask. Right before I turned around to walk back to the ambulance and answer the next call, my eyes returned the twinkle in his and said to him, “I see you.”
Hung Pham is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .