Medical School professor Anna Reisman ’86 spoke to a handful of students on Tuesday afternoon about the importance of using skills developed by the humanities to inform medical practice.
“To me, in medicine, the science part is very small, and the humanities part is very large,” Reisman said at the Timothy Dwight Master’s Tea.
Reisman, who studied English as an undergraduate at Yale in the mid-1980s, said she had never considered being a physician prior to reading Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain” in the summer before her senior year. When Reisman discovered the humanistic component of medicine through Mann’s book, it led her to an interest in science and she ultimately completed her MD at New York University School of Medicine. She now runs several programs across Yale that incorporate humanities-based skills into medical practice. At the talk, which was entitled “Humanities in Medicine,” TD Master Mary Lui said she hoped the discussion would contribute, in a practical way, to an ongoing conversation at Yale about the intersection of the sciences and humanities.
“Medicine is about people,” Reisman said. “For people who want to take care of patients or be involved in academics, the role of science trails off and disappears — not completely, but to a large part — and what becomes most important is being able to talk to people, to communicate, to understand, having a way to look at the world.”
Reisman described the University as being more “forward thinking” than other institutions in its approach to combining the humanities and medicine. The Yale Program for the Humanities in Medicine, directed by Reisman, invites lecturers from across disciplines to speak about how skills such as drawing or observing art can be useful in practice. Reisman cited Irwin Braverman ’55, professor emeritus of dermatology at the School of Medicine, who frequently brought his students to the Yale Center for British Art to examine paintings as a way of learning how to effectively examine and empathize with patients. Reisman also directs Yale’s Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop, a craft-writing program that encourages residents to write about and publish their experiences in patient care.
Writing is a necessary method of reflection amidst overwhelming medical experiences, Reisman said. She then shared two pieces of her own prose with the audience. The first, “Gifts,” was originally presented at Yale’s Service of Gratitude — an annual event for students to reflect on the experience of working with cadavers — and discusses the death of Reisman’s younger sister, Deborah. The second, called “Hounded,” talks about the dogs Reisman has met during home visits with patients.
“Every time I write a story about a patient, I torture myself about whether or not I should try and publish it,” Reisman said. “This is something that has always troubled me — whose stories are they? When you spend time with a patient and hear them talk about their life and are inspired to write about it, when does it become your story? How much of yourself do you put into it?”
Siyu Xiao MED ’18 and Dan Zheng MED ’16, students of Reisman’s who attended the talk and work in various humanities-based programs at the School of Medicine, praised Reisman’s efforts to connect the humanities and sciences. Zheng said that writing with Reisman helped him rediscover the reasons he went into medicine in the first place, and reminded him of the privilege doctors have of working with patients during their most vulnerable moments.
Lui said she was inspired to host the talk due to her own experiences as a freshman adviser at Yale and seeing students having to make a choice between a liberal arts education and a more science-focused premed track. For example, writing a medical history for a patient is not radically different from creating a narrative history for a city, Lui said, adding that academia need not “silo” the two disciplines.
“It was really nice to see an example of someone who had been able to break from what seems like the traditional route of a science major and premedical courses while at Yale,” said Gregory Suralik ’17, an English major interested in attending medical school. “It was also nice to see a medical professional who views medicine from a more humanities and holistic approach, who sees each patient as a story rather than just somebody to cure.”
Reisman’s writing has been published in Slate, The Atlantic and The New York Times.