Cultural Infusion

Arts and Humanities Initiative underscores integral role in medicine

Students (from left) Kia Byrd, Chidi Akusobi, Biqi Zhang, Tracy Makuvire and Victoria Robson perform African fusion dance at the launch of the Arts and Humanities Initiative. Image: Jay Connor

Students (from left) Kia Byrd, Chidi Akusobi, Biqi Zhang, Tracy Makuvire and Victoria Robson perform African fusion dance at the launch of the Arts and Humanities Initiative. Image: Jay Connor

When students first arrive at Harvard Medical School, many of them are already accomplished musicians, artists, writers and dancers. At a recent celebration launching the School’s new Arts and Humanities Initiative, its leaders had one message for them.

Don’t stop.

Too often, students put their instruments and artistic natures aside while they tackle fresh challenges in medical education, faculty members said. In doing so, those students risk losing not only an important part of what makes them who they are, but also who they might become.

“A deep understanding of the arts and humanities will make us better doctors,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, HMS dean, sounding a note that resonated throughout the mix of talks and performances in the School's Courtyard Café.

The initiative’s mission is to “promote compassion, creativity and community in medical education and patient care through the arts and humanities at HMS and affiliated hospitals.” Its members come from Harvard-affiliated hospitals and are active in writing, music, theater and the visual arts.

“We all feel very strongly that arts and humanities make us better doctors.”  —Susan Pories, HMS associate professor of surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Mount Auburn Hospital

HMS student Jonathan Fisher set the mood at the Oct. 13 event, playing jazz piano for an audience of about 100 people. A chamber orchestra group then played a composition by first-year student Danielle Rabinowitz, who told the audience the larger story of the symphonic suite to which the excerpt belonged.

Some students had to dust off their instruments to play on short notice, Rabinowitz said, but they all agreed enthusiastically to perform.

“This initiative wants to have a big tent,” said David Jones, the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine at HMS and at the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and director of the initiative.

“We all feel very strongly that arts and humanities make us better doctors,” said Susan Pories, HMS associate professor of surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Mount Auburn Hospital, as well as associate co-director of the initiative.

Joel Katz invited the audience to imagine a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, climbing the stairs in the Art of the Americas wing to find the John Singleton Copley painting “Watson and the Shark” facing them.

Katz, HMS associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a member of the initiative’s executive committee, asked each person to pick someone in the painting with whom they felt kinship. The drowning man? The rescuers? The people in the boat holding on to the rescuers? Or the shark?

All of the above resonated with audience members, which was no surprise to Katz.

“Almost any competency can be addressed at the museum,” he said.

Two students read from the journals they have been keeping as they follow their first patients for a year.

Galina Gheihman shared “Heartbeats” and Manjinder Kandola read “Destiny,” personal essays reflecting on the lessons they learned about themselves and the humanity of their patients, in life and in death.

After words, came movement: Six students performed an African fusion dance with infectious energy and enthusiasm. 

“Deconstructing a poem helps you understand patients,” —Lisa Wong, HMS assistant professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital

Ed Hundert, HMS dean for medical education, spoke after the troupe’s performance, reciting Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use.”

Lisa Wong, HMS assistant professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, associate co-director of the initiative, and—for 25 years—leader of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, echoed the theme of the night. 

“Deconstructing a poem helps you understand patients,” she said.

A classically trained pianist, third-year HMS student Christopher Lim said he hopes the initiative will help people understand how art can be a powerful, positive force.

“In medicine, people lead rich and challenging lives,” he said. “Art is a great way to reflect on and reinterpret your experiences.”

Ron Arky, the Daniel D. Federman, M.D. Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Medical Education at HMS, said he played cello in high school and college.

There have always been individual artists at HMS, he said, but “This ties the loose threads together.”