I’d like to call attention to yesterday’s announcement of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, Author Sherman Alexie is the winner for fiction (War Dances, annotated in the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database) and if you haven’t read any of his work you are missing a treat. He is a prolific author of essays, fiction, poetry, and also wrote three screenplays. Figuring in much of his work are his experiences as a Coeur d’Alene/Spokane Indian who lived on the "rez" interfacing with "white" society and who continues to span these borders off the reservation. His style and point of view are unique — humorous, perceptive, original, pointed, poignant. Coincidentally, I had just finished annotating and posting the film, Smoke Signals, for which Alexie wrote the screenplay, when I learned that he was the recipient of this award. Every time I watch that film I find something new to savor so I was particularly pleased to learn of this award.
May, 2006. We treated our Doctoring small group to a nice home-cooked meal to celebrate the conclusion of their first year of medical school-eight students, two lucky teachers. Students, after all, are hungry for knowledge but they're also hungry. We had grown to know these now 25% doctors through didactic but more so through their reflective narratives that we were privileged to receive and respond to…After dessert, I surprised each of them with a personalized binder of all their narratives plus the written feedback they had received over the course of the year from their co-teachers-Hedy (me), a clinical psychologist and Steve, a family physician. The teachers lugged home extra large binders with all the students' writings and feedback, precious cargo indeed. I hoped the students would hold onto the experience, maybe even look back one day upon those texts, tangible evidence of their metamorphosis. I got choked up that evening. With good reason.
It is a mysterious process, this reading and responding with written individualized feedback to students’ reflective narratives as we accompany them on their journey of personal and professional identity development. Rita Charon captured the awe: "What a remarkable obligation toward another human being is enclosed in the act of reading or listening" (1, p.53) This became my mantra as I diligently typed at my computer, striving to craft meaningful, quality feedback to the students’ narratives that had sailed across cyberspace to land on my screen. I tried hard to establish a "comfort zone", a trusting "mentor" relationship where an embryo doc could safely share vulnerabilities and uncertainties, personal angst and yes, triumphs, dramatic moments and perhaps even more meaningfully, everyday moments of caring that should be recognized by a self-aware, mindful practitioner (student and teacher alike). And, I learned, it wasn't a bad idea to keep "oven mitts" (2) nearby for the "hot" stuff, the personal and/or professional content that can be challenging for both writer and reader, albeit less frequently encountered. Life is not sanitized, homogenized, or neatly packaged. Neither are narratives.
Interactive Reflective Writing
Some background. Several years ago, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University (Alpert Med) included an interactive reflective writing innovation within their Doctoring course (3) for first and second year students; the current curriculum includes this as well. I was there from the get-go. Students send confidential "field notes" by email throughout the year- in response to structured narrative prompts on patient encounters and other topics-and receive written feedback from an interdisciplinary team. Early on, I sensed something special unfolding…Narrative medicine enthusiasts will not be surprised to hear about the perceived benefits of hearing a student’s voice within narrative (valued as distinct from the usual group dynamic), witnessing the representation of their experience in the written word to give it meaning, and deepening learners' reflective capacity through this process. "Clinicians donate themselves as meaning-making vessels to the patient who tells of his or her situation", Charon observed (1, p.132)…And the embodiment of this? The meaning-making vessel of narrative. Written feedback, I would suggest, is potentially a "meaning-making vessel" in its own right. Indeed, the "interactive" nature of this paradigm has pedagogic value, students have noted, as they appreciate writing with an "audience" in mind. (4) Narratively humbling indeed for those in that audience. (5)
Narrative content in a longitudinal context, Steve and I noticed, documented our students’ learning journey. But what of the teachers, the "seasoned travelers"? (6) It’s not about us, it’s about them (our learners). I know this. But maybe, just maybe, it’s about us too. Narrative connects on so many levels. We know this. It reminds us, inspires us, nourishes us. Students’ revelations within confidential interactive reflective writing can have a powerful impact, touching one’s heart and soul. Through authentic engagement, I found that their writings about clinical encounters (including personal and professional issues) served as narrative triggers for my associations. I experienced a flow, sometimes tidal wave of cognitive and affective responses, personal and clinical recollections, a potential treasure trove to share. Yet I would not share it all; educational responsibility prevails, judgments need to be made, and students don't want to read novels on their narratives anyway. Ultimately, something about this experience resonated with a key concept I had learned in narrative medicine: the "parallel chart" teaching tool, (1) inviting further contemplation.
Rita Charon appreciated the value of considering the nuance and texture of patients' experiences of illness as well as what students themselves were undergoing in providing patient care, even though "you cannot write that in the hospital chart, we will not let you". (1, p.156) "And yet", she instructed clerkship students (and later, residents as well), "it has to be written somewhere. You write it in the parallel chart" (1, p.156) In similar fashion, I suggest, the teacher's experience of the student's narrative, of the student's "narrative writing in the service of the care of a particular patient" (1, p.157) can be considered a "parallel 'parallel chart'". In essence, my narrative writing evoked by the student's text is in "the service of the care of a particular student", regardless of whether all of it or none of it appears in my formal written feedback.
The Teacher's Experience
What of this living organism, this "parallel 'parallel chart'"? Might it offer opportunities for a parallel process of transformative growth of a teacher? Let the student's narrative "brew". (7) Allow the narrative to speak to us, guide us, enhance our awareness, then trust our instincts, use our curiosity, and sift through our "parallel 'parallel chart'" to craft feedback of substance and worth…all in the service of the student, yet with mutual benefit. Let the teacher's narrative "brew" too. Professor Lee Jacobus' observation that "time moves on once the book is gone from the writer's hand and the writer is no longer the person who wrote the book" is germane (blog review of Margaret Atwood's Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing). (8) The student is no longer the person who wrote the reflective narrative; neither, I would assert, is the teacher who responded to it. It's called Education. And it gives "faculty development" a whole new meaning. The intersubjective process of transformative growth (1), I now realize, is not the student’s sole proprietorship. (9)
So we sift, filter, craft, and mold our "parallel 'parallel chart'" for most effective educational impact. My research colleagues at Alpert Med (Drs. Reis, Monroe, and Borkan) and I recently offered the BEGAN tool, the Brown Educational Guide to the Analysis of Narrative to help guide faculty with this process, describing integration of personal and clinical experiences, reflection-inviting questions, elements of close reading, as well as student text quotes within written feedback to students' narratives. (10) Be a "generous listener" (11) but more than that, use that "parallel 'parallel chart'" to support and challenge the learner toward deeper reflection, understanding, and meaning making. Oh, and be sure to pause before hitting the SEND button, we advise, to avoid foot in mouth disease and other such maladies.
The literature is replete with explorations of what doctors find meaningful about their work, what it is that sustains them-making a difference in someone's (the patient's) life is often mentioned. (12) Within medical education, connecting to students through their narratives about connecting with patients can help make a difference in students' lives and our own. "Learn from every patient", the teacher teaches the student. "Learn from every student", the narrative teaches the teacher. And we do. Impressed with the power of narrative, a primary care doc, for example, recently remarked to me that reading and responding to students' narratives was helping remind him why he went into this business. As for me, I've grown as a teacher, colleague, and writer. Teacher me now routinely uses my "parallel 'parallel chart'" (with deepened insights) and BEGAN tool to craft what I hope is useful, meaningful individualized feedback to reflective narratives in the Alpert Med family medicine clerkship. My colleague self "ping-pongs" ideas (based on my response flow) with co-facilitators within small group teaching and with research colleagues, sparking creative output. I'm also fortunate to be able to reflect on their written feedback to students derived from their own "parallel 'parallel charts'". As a writer, narrative flow has led to gratifying creative and academic writing accomplishments; JAMA, Newsweek, Academic Medicine, and more. Correlation does not imply causation, but it sure feels that way. It's been a remarkable journey.
I ran into one of my original first-year Doctoring course students recently at an Alpert Med seminar. He looked good, more polished and self-assured, excited about Match Day in March, he told me. We took a moment to reminisce about the "good ol' days" of Doctoring and my, how time had flown. "I still have the binder", he grinned as he walked away and made my day. "So do I", I whispered, "So do I".
1. Charon, R. Narrative medicine - honoring the stories of illness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
2. Ellis, K. Plenary on Close Reading. Advanced Narrative Medicine Workshop - Program in Narrative Medicine. College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University, June 23, 2008.
3. Monroe A, Ferri F, Borkan J, Dube C, Taylor J, Frazzano A, Macko M. Doctoring. Providence, RI: Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, 2005-10.
4. Wald HS, Davis SW, Reis SP, Monroe AD, Borkan, JM. Reflecting on Reflections: Medical Education Curriculum Enhancement with Structured Field Notes and Guided Feedback. Acad Med, 2009; 84(7): 830-7.
5. DasGupta, S. Narrative Humility. Lancet, 2008; 371: 980-1.
6. Kerka, S. Journal writing and adult learning. ERIC Dig., 1996; 174:1-4.
7. Wald HS, Reis SP. A Piece of My Mind. Brew. JAMA, 2008; 299:2255-6.
8. Jacobus, L. http://literatureartandideas.blogspot.com/ [Accessed February 16, 2010].
9. Wald, HS. I've Got Mail. Fam Med, 2008; 40(6): 393-4.
10. Reis SP, Wald HS, Monroe AD, Borkan JM. Begin the BEGAN (The Brown Educational Guide to the Analysis of Narrative): A framework for enhancing educational impact of faculty feedback to students' reflective writing. Patient Educ Counseling, 2010; doi:10.1016/j.pec.2009.11.014.
11. Rabow MW, Remen RN, Parmelee DX, Inui TS. Professional Formation: Extending Medicine's Lineage of Service Into the Next Century. Acad Med, 2010; 85(2): 310-7.
12. Horowitz CR, Suchman AL, Branch WT, Frankel RM. What Do Doctors Find Meaningful about Their Work? Ann Intern Med, 2003; 138(9): 772-5.
Commentary by Jessica Howell, Ph.D., Wellcome Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for the Humanities and Health, King's College London
Described as a "free destination for the incurably curious", the Wellcome Collection in London consists of several galleries, a cafe, bookstore and library. The library houses "collections of books, manuscripts, archives, films and pictures on the history of medicine from the earliest times to the present day". I knew that this particular library's holdings would be an invaluable resource for my research in the medical humanities, so I decided to pay the Collection building a visit, soon after I arrived in London this January. I was doubly interested because the Wellcome Trust, established by Sir Henry Wellcome's will in 1936 and meant "to advance medical research and understanding of its history", funded the Centre for the Humanities and Health at King's College London, where I hold my current position as postdoctoral research fellow.
I enjoyed the Wellcome Image Award gallery, which displays winning medical and historical images made by light and electron microscopy as well as illustration and photography. But I was perhaps most forcibly struck by "Medicine Man: The forgotten museum of Henry Wellcome", which exhibits objects from Wellcome’s personal collection. Sir Henry was apparently a dedicated gatherer of medical and anthropological artifacts and curiosities. Amongst the assortment are forceps, chastity belts, ceremonial masks, early surgical instruments such as bone saws, and even torture chairs. I found myself thinking of the exhibit for a long time afterwards. Imagine the research that could be done, and no doubt already has begun, on each of these object’s long, fraught histories, and what such research tells us about a culture's values, practices, even aesthetics. Because I found certain objects disturbing, I also felt responsible to pay even closer attention to what they had to teach me-about medicine's relationship with gender and race, as well as about common human experiences of birth, death, pain, suffering, and healing. I wished I had a medical doctor, artist and social scientist, amongst others, standing in the room, contemplating with me this window into complex and often troubling moments of human history.
Though I was alone at the Wellcome Collection itself, I am in the fortunate position of being able to participate in just such meaningful discussions in my role as Wellcome Research Fellow. I am part of a multi-strand program called the "Boundaries of Illness", convened in the Centre for Humanities and Health here at King's College. I work within a strand of this program titled "Nursing and Identity: Crossing Borders". For my project, I will examine the lifewriting of nurses traveling in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the auspices of the Colonial Nursing Association. I will analyze their work in terms of its implications for medical history, literary, postcolonial, gender and travel studies, and help to write a database for future researchers. To the research team at King's College, I bring a background in literary studies. I received my Ph.D. in English literature from University of California, Davis in 2007. My own work has been concerned with racial science and climate in nineteenth-century travel narratives. I applied to the research fellowship at King's partly due to my own long-standing interest in interdisciplinary scholarship and colleagueship. For example, while at UC Davis, I co-organized a medical humanities research group with Faith Fitzgerald (Internist and Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean of Humanities and Bioethics), and we also hosted two conferences on "Literature and Pathology."
Through these experiences, I have found that being part of an interdisciplinary scholarly community can enhance my own work in both tangible and intangible ways: on a pragmatic level, I produce better honed research when I analyze my arguments from alternate perspectives, testing the validity of my assertions outside of my own discipline. I may follow up leads provided by my colleagues that will take my work in new and creative directions. I also use research methodologies drawn from various academic traditions. Less measurable, but still critical to my work, are the interpersonal benefits: I find myself energized and encouraged when surrounded by scholars who have chosen this kind of study-speaking generally, I find that they tend to be more willing to explicitly discuss the ethical implications of their research, or even the underlying ideals and values they hold, such as human connection, compassion and understanding. Specifically, many of us in the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities believe that it is only through a meeting of the minds between biomedicine and other fields such as literature, art, philosophy and history that we can understand the experiences of patients and providers of care (roles that almost all of us will inhabit at some point in our lives). The Centre's website says it well: "Patient subjectivity and values - sometimes bundled together as 'the patient voice' - are expressed in a wide diversity of cultural objects and settings (texts, symbolic figurings rendered in portraits, films and in conceptual constructions), which it is the task of the Medical Humanities to identify, research and illuminate" (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/research/groups/chh/about.html).
As I have stated that I value my colleagues' diverse perspectives and the collaborative quality of interdisciplinary research, it would be remiss of me not to include the experiences of some of my King's coworkers. Dr. Rosemary Wall began her post in 2007, and so has seen the Centre develop through the stages of proposal, planning, and now implementation. She mentioned that it has been rewarding to help bring together scholars from within King's College and from other institutions who have common interests and complementary training, but may not have known each other or had the opportunity to share their ideas before (personal interview 2/4/2010). Ms. Elisabetta Babini asserts that, while "commitment to Medical Humanities" is "highly challenging", the field also has great potential to "broaden traditional research horizons." Both of my colleagues discussed the rich professional opportunities provided by their work in the Centre. As just one example, they are currently co-planning Screening the Nurse: Call to Service, a two-day event of talks and film screenings organized around the theme "British Nurses and Wars", hosted by the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum film archive (e-mail interview, 2/7/2010). These kinds of projects offer researchers in the medical humanities unique venues and opportunities through which to broaden their professional network and gain valuable cross-disciplinary experience, as well as to make their research accessible to the public. I am very pleased to have joined with the Centre in supporting its initiatives. Further, I look forward to sharing in the future some of my findings regarding nurses' writing, which I agree, with recent commentators Cortney Davis and Thomas Long, is a topic of ongoing interest.
1 For more on Sir Henry's personal collection, see An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World by Frances Larson. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 10 Sep 2009)
2 Within the "Nursing and Identity" strand of this project, I am supervised by Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery, and Dr. Anna Snaith, Reader in Twentieth-Century Literature. My co-researchers include Dr. Rosemary Wall, postdoctoral medical historian, and Elisabetta Babini, Ph.D. student in Film Studies/ Nursing, who both kindly agreed for me to include their comments.
Commentary, art, and poetry by Eliette Markhbein, M.S., M.A. Founder, The Therapeutic Arts Program, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, The Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City
Drawing and writing came naturally to me while in rehabilitation after sustaining a traumatic brain injury and injuries to my spine, the result of being struck by a speeding car. They eased the physical, emotional and mental pain that were my constant companions and helped me find answers within.
Though complementary, the drawings and poems originated from different perspectives of the topics explored, emphasized other aspects and fulfilled separate quests. For example, "Braced-up" addresses in words issues of self concept and acceptance while the illustration was a life drawing, part of a series of sketches exploring femininity and searching for my own femininity after the accident. As a whole the series illustrate with candor and immediacy universal aspects of disability and rehabilitation, focusing on three periods: succumbing-hoping-coping, roughly a year each.
2005-2006 was the year of reckoning: reckoning with the extent of my cognitive impairments and contending with a person I did not know, could not count on and did not like-in other words the new me in all her splendor. Poems of that year (Writing; Alone; I so miss us) articulate the emotional distress and existential anguish I felt, the physical pain which became chronic, the depression that ensued and the unbearable loneliness, despair and isolation I experienced. I wrestled against drowning forces such as mental chaos, fatigue, lability and fear that was invisible to others.
yet do not look.
yet do not reach.
Crouched - a shadow
2006-2007 was the year of discoveries: poems of that year (Displaced; Braced-up; Rays) express a shattered sense of self, the discovery and the need to prevail over panic attacks and other dirty tricks my injured brain played on me, and the unearthing of new sources of peace, strength and clarity.
2007-2008 was the year of growth and fruition: poems of that year (Travel; Florida Summer; Attending) speak of acceptance and integration of my disability; group identification and advocacy; achieving a healthy balance between dependence, interdependence and independence; recapturing a sense of pleasure and playfulness; and reclaiming a social and professional place.
The last poem "Attending" talks about my caring for a locked-in syndrome patient as a Therapeutic Arts Practitioner, a metamorphosis from patient identity towards becoming a healer. As a final note I would like to emphasize that while the series of poems clearly indicate progress and resolution, the issues they describe do not disappear- with time, help and the application of compensatory techniques and strategies one becomes better at dealing with them.
I can’t help calling attention to >a blog being written by Dr. Fritz Francois, an internist at NYU School of Medicine, who helped to coordinate a team of physicians, including himself, who are currently helping out in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. In addition to providing medical assistance, Dr. Francois is translating from Creole to English and vice versa. His blog is well-written, observant, and thoughtful. In addition to Nice Wife, see also, for example, Priming the Senses.
Commentary by Bernice L. Hausman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of English; coordinator of the undergraduate minor in Medicine and Society, Virginia Tech.
Biologically speaking, breastfeeding has always been a health-promoting practice of motherhood. Within modernity, breastfeeding has become a consciously health-promoting activity through a complex historical development that has rendered all forms of eating and nutrition as analogs to a healthy lifestyle. To single out breastfeeding may seem to ignore the ways in which many other foods have become medicalized in the last half century. After all, eating has long been the focus of health advocates and lifestyle politics in the United States. Yet what is specific to the figuration of breast milk as medicine concerns, at least in part, the fact that breast milk is the only food produced in the human body for human consumption, and it is produced almost exclusively by female humans.
Breast Milk as Medicine
Breastfeeding's contribution to health is imagined through the representation of breast milk as medicine. This figuration appears prominently in guidebooks for new mothers. La Leche League's The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding contains a short section in its first chapter where the reader learns that breastfeeding provides not only the "best possible infant food," but that it aids in contracting the uterus after birth, helps the development of the infant's jaw and facial structure, "safeguard[s]" the baby against the development of food allergies, "inhibit[s] the growth of harmful bacteria and viruses," contributes to a higher IQ for the baby, protects the mother from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, urinary tract infections, and osteoporosis, and contributes toward the sex education of older children. (1) In another example from a global publication on breastfeeding and HIV, colostrum is defined often as "the infant's first vaccine." (2) In yet another example, this one from a local breastsfeeding coalition newsletter, a neonatologist writes, "The benefits of breastfeeding in terms of species specificity, balanced, changing nutrients and enzymes, host resistance factors, immunologic protection, allergy protection and psychosocial development, make breastmilk [sic] the most important and cost effective substance we have in medicine today." (3).
I believe that these claims concerning the biological benefits of breastfeeding are true, by the way. The point here is to examine the unfolding of a story about breast milk as medicinal, not to question the biological truth-claims of such a story. In the short section of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding cited above, the new or expectant mother learns to think of her body as producing a substance with effects that are defined and measured in medical terms. Almost all breastfeeding advocacy in the United States works on this model—medical benefits and measures of breastfeeding's "natural superiority" couched in language also suggesting the central closeness that emerges in the mother-infant breastfeeding relationship.
Cultures of Breastfeeding/Breastfeeding in Culture
In general, breastfeeding operates within cultures as a behavior promoting the core values, beliefs, and practices of that culture. For example, in The Afterlife Is Where We Come From, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb demonstrates that West African Beng culture treats infants very differently than conventional U.S. families, understanding infantile behavior to be essentially unpredictable and without a knowable cause. Scheduled feeding and sleeping is an unknown value and thus not sought after, even though mothers are often separated from infants of 2 months of age when they return to work in the fields. While some maternal infant feeding practices, like feeding newborns and young infants water before nursing, are rationalized as healthful, Beng conceptions of health are themselves mediated primarily by spiritual belief rather than by medicine as an institutionalized form of knowledge about the body. (4)
In heavily medicalized contexts like the United States, the "nature of infants" is understood to be biologically determined; infants fuss because of a physical or physiological need. Scheduling feedings corresponds to a belief about "normal infants" as cohering to cultural values; "good babies" are those who eat at specific times and sleep in predictable, lengthy units (especially at night). (5) All of these factors are presented in advice books as healthful because they are understood to be biologically appropriate for growing infants, yet it is not hard to discern that medical ideas provide a justificatory rationale for culturally specific practices and perspectives on infant behavior.
In addition, a discourse of mother-infant closeness is grafted onto the medical narrative of biological causation, bolstered by pseudo-scientific ideas of "bonding." (6) The loving relation of mother to baby is founded on the transfer of a medically pure substance in a gift exchange. (7) This gift of breast milk is also a gift of medicine itself. Breast milk is not just a nutrient with medicinal effects, like an "anti-oxidant" or vitamin, something that helps avoid allergies and disease, but a pharmacological substance, a product associated with medical research and industrial production.
Yet what makes breast milk special is that it comes from women's bodies-it is figured as food and medicine made by women. It is also part of a cultural debate—longstanding and largely displaced from explicit social recognition—about whether mothers can really succeed at mothering. Cultural messages about pure milk and the implication that breast milk itself is medicinal are bound up with presumptions about good mothering and the embodied purity of good mothers. (8)
Scientific motherhood, defined initially by Rima Apple in Mothers and Medicine and developed in her later book Perfect Motherhood, is the notion that maternal practices are best subjected to the authority of medicine and the (presumably male) physician. (9, 10) In the context of scientific motherhood as an ideology, maternal knowledge and traditional practices do not hold the same authority as the scientifically derived understanding of doctors; thus, individual mothers are taught to rely on the advice of expert professionals. The best mothers are those whose practices promote growth and development that can be defined and measured by medical personnel.
Currently, in the United States, breastfeeding is a practice in service to the ideology of scientific motherhood, and, at least discursively, breast milk is the product that leads to the medically defined "healthy development" of babies. "Good mothers" are also narrative effects of these practices, figured through their selfless labor in relation to their infants' health, their disciplined relation to their own body projects, and their attentiveness to the purity of their own bodies. Scientific motherhood is a white ethnoracial and middle-class construct, although it serves as a model for all women's behavior and many different groups of women subscribe to its values. Scientific motherhood has also transformed the disciplinary experience of being a maternal body. If, in the early part of the last century, mothers were encouraged to stop feeding coffee to their babies because coffee stunted the growth of infants and led to digestive problems, now we see in pregnancy and infant care guide books advice to mothers to eliminate or diminish their own consumption of coffee and caffeinated beverages in order that the caffeine not affect their fetus or nursing infant.
Barbara Duden has discussed this kind of thinking as the figuration of the maternal body as an ecosystem, and she argues that its overall effect is to disembody women. (11) What this development alerts us to is a perception of the female body itself as a danger to fetuses and infants, for what mother can keep herself clean enough to avoid the transfer of some noxious agent? We are all the repositories of the chemicals that permeate our environment. In another historical shift, in the 1970s and 80s the body of the mother was posed against the bottle as the source of goodness figured against poison. If the image was striking—as the Nestle boycott meant it to be—it was effective. Now, however, the body of the mother is not clearly the good ending to the story of how to keep babies healthy and alive; it is instead implicated in the illness narratives of her infant. And there is no limit to the purity that can be demanded.
Breast Milk as Virus
The advent of HIV/AIDS has made salient the viral possibilities of breastfeeding. The opposition medicine/virus operates to enhance medicine's authority over mothers. In its articulations in affluent countries, it contributes to maternal anxiety and concern over breastfeeding. In poor countries, where the majority of HIV-positive mothers live, uncertainties about the meaning of breast milk are intertwined with bleak outcomes for many infants and children.
Biomedical research itself is not uniform in its understanding of mother-to-child HIV transmission rates and optimal feeding protocols. The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed guidelines for infant feeding in the case of maternal HIV infection that emphasize maternal informed choice. The AFASS criteria—which define whether replacement feeding is ACCEPTABLE, FEASIBLE, AFFORDABLE, SUSTAINABLE, and SAFE—are supposed to be evaluated in each instance. If these criteria cannot be met, mothers are counseled to breastfeed exclusively during the first months of an infant's life. Yet scholars suggest that myriad factors interfere with the model of rational decision making imagined in these guidelines. Indeed, sometimes even the simple understanding that a mother's milk contains HIV will be enough to convince a woman not to breastfeed, regardless of her circumstances (12, 13).
"Informed choice" situates the mother in the middle of a scientific and social controversy, and then asks that she make a decision responsive to her material and social circumstances and an abstract understanding of biomedical risk. HIV-positive mothers are figured as modernized individuals whose success at mothering is a blend of rationality, choice, and options. It is my view that these guidelines implicitly imagine the privileged mothers of the global north as their exemplary ideals, mothers for whom "choice" is understood (however improperly) as a relatively free endeavor and whose choices are supported by the social, cultural, and medical infrastructure of their communities.
Choice, Breastfeeding, and Modern Motherhood
It is not that I would want to deny choice and the agency it relies on to (mostly impoverished) HIV-positive women. Rather, I'd like to suggest that we need to reorient the utopian views of good mothering that frame and constrain our perceptions of what mothers do and the choices they make. Mothers need to be understood as neither the repositories of pure nutrition nor the potentially infectious contaminators of the young, but as materially embedded subjects whose bodies are of this world as everyone's are. It is probably impossible to return to breastfeeding a set of meanings untouched by medicalization, but it is possible to construe its significance as not completely captured by medical narratives and understanding.
Medical narratives that frame good mothering as the result of rational choices made on the basis of biological imperatives ignore the social and cultural contexts of practice that exist for all mothers. The medical framing of breastfeeding has obscured for many of us the important cultural functions that nursing enacts, and thus makes it difficult to see how HIV-positive mothers are affected by multiple social determinants. It is not just that the affluence of the global north makes understanding the practices of impoverished mothers of the global south difficult; it is that we no longer believe that breastfeeding has any other meaning than to create (biomedically) better babies.
It is my view that the biomedical and public health struggles over how to advise HIV-positive mothers point us toward larger issues concerning the social meaning of mother's bodies and mother's practices. These are, in Anthony Giddens's words, some "consequences of modernity." (14) To offer women more than a strait-jacket of choice, we might begin with a revision of the stories told about breastfeeding, especially those that suture its meanings to medicine and normative expectations of maternity.
1. La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 6th ed. Schaumburg, Ill.: La Leche League International, 1997, 6-7.
2. Linkages. Infant Feeding Options in the Context of HIV. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development, April 2004. Web. www.linkagesproject.org (accessed October 15, 2004).
3. Wight, Nancy E. "Breastfeeding in High Risk Populations: The Mom with Hepatitis." Breastfeeding Update (San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition) 1, no. 4 (December 2001): 1, 4. Web. www.breastfeeding.org/newsletter/v1i4 (accessed March 8, 2004). Emphasis added.
4. Gottlieb, Alma. The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
5. Millard, Ann V. "The Place of the Clock in Pediatric Advice: Rationales, Cultural Themes, and Impediments to Breastfeeding." Social Science and Medicine 31, no. 2 (1990): 211-21.
6. Eyer, Diane E. Mother-Infant Bonding: A Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
7. Golden, Janet. A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
8. Meyer, Dagmar Estermann, and Dora Lucia de Oliveira. "Breastfeeding Policies and the Production of Motherhood: A Historical-Cultural Approach." Nursing Inquiry 10, no. 1 (2003): 11-18.
9. Apple, Rima D. Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890-1950. Wisconsin Publications in the History of Science and Medicine, no. 7. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
10. Apple, Rima D. Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
11. Duden, Barbara. Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn. Translated by Lee Hoinacki. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
12. Blystad, Astrid, and Karen Marie Moland. "Technologies of Hope? Motherhood, HIV, and Infant Feeding in Eastern Africa." Anthropology and Medicine 16.2 (August 2009): 105-18.
13. Moland, Karen Marie, and Astrid Blystad. "Counting on Mother's Love: The Global Politics of Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV in Eastern Africa." In Anthropology and Public Health: Bridging Differences in Culture and Society, Second Edition, edited by Robert A. Hahn and Marcia C. Inhorn, 447-79. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
14. Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Commentary by Cortney Davis, MA, APRN, Nurse practitioner, Sacred Heart University Health Services, Fairfield, Connecticut
Thank you to Dr. Thomas Long for his excellent blog entry and for his continued championing of nurses' writing. I also wonder why nurse-writers don't have a wider audience. Specifically, as I see more and more narrative medicine courses offered to medical students, I wonder why many nursing programs still fail to utilize the creative writing of nurses-why not narrative nursing courses? After reading Dr. Long's blog, I asked my husband, a physician, why he thought nurse writers were not as well respected (and as widely read) as doctors who wrote. His answer was immediate: "Authority," he said. "People think that because doctors have more authority in the work place, they also have more authority on the page." There is certainly some truth in this, as Long points out. Doctors are often seen as the embodiment of strength and "curing" and nurses, whether male or female, are often seen as the embodiment of a softer, more feminine "caring"-and I think there are other factors at work here as well.
One reason nursing programs may have been slow to incorporate nurses' writing is the myth of "natural empathy." Some have assumed that those who go into nursing are already compassionate and empathic (sometimes they've even been seen as bleeding hearts, ruled by the emotions and not by the mind). Therefore it might seem that nursing students, those sensitive souls, wouldn't require the humanities to awaken them to their patients' suffering. The companion myth is that of the "distant physician." It's often assumed that medical students are more interested in the illness than in the patient and therefore would benefit from studying the humanities in order to become more empathic providers. Of course, neither myth is valid, although there is a kernel of truth in both. Indeed, when nurses first began publishing their creative writing, some of that writing was overly sentimental and, in some cases, poorly crafted. When doctors first began offering their creative writing, some of it was overly cerebral and occasionally cold. Now, after several decades, nurse- and doctor-writers have honed their skills and found their voices; the best of them are accomplished, professional and writing on equally high levels.
Another factor relates both to the question of who has the authority and to the myth of natural vs. learned empathy. "Nursing Education," that big generic machine, for many years also viewed, if secretly, physicians' work as having more authority, if not more worth, than nurses' work. This bias was spurred on by many things, including the belittling of the nursing profession by doctors, by hospital administration, by the media, and sometimes even by patients and nurses themselves. This led nursing educators to do their best to rid nursing programs of any hint of "softness"-that natural empathy taken to its limits-and to forge nursing education into a research-based, scientific endeavor. As Long notes, this brought the study of nursing from the hospital bedside to the classroom. Almost at the same time, in the 1970s, along came "medical humanities," the study of literature meant, among other things, to foster more empathic, nurse-like compassion in medical providers. As medical schools began offering courses in the arts, humanities and creative writing as a way to increase students' awareness of the "softer side" of caregiving, nursing programs hurried ever farther away from touch and ever closer to technology.
Nursing, it seems to me, missed the boat; only now is it, in some instances, trying to catch up. Still, the majority of nursing programs today have neither the time nor the inclination to offer humanities or writing courses to student nurses. If nursing students are asked to keep journals, the journals are too often seen as an exercise tangential to the real studies; when medical students are asked to keep journals, the journals are often lauded as intimate glimpses into the trials and triumphs of learning medicine-and some of those journal entries are published as beacons to guide other medical students. If the majority of nursing programs are not honoring the creative writing of nurses and using that writing to help guide their students, should we wonder why the names of the best nurse-writers producing poems, essays and novels today are not well known?
That said, some interesting things are happening which give me hope that, little by little, nurses' writing is moving into a more mainstream consciousness. Nurses' creative writing, while still for the most part under utilized within nursing education (and here let me recognize and thank Thomas Long and the many other educators who do value nurses' writing and fight to include it in their courses), is becoming more and more visible, as Long also points out, in the "secular" literary world. Rattle, an excellent and widely read literary journal, featured a "Tribute to Nurses" in the winter 2007 issue, publishing poems and essays by 24 nurses. Many of the poetry volumes, novels and essay collections by nurse-writers have been published by literary presses-among them the University of Iowa Press, Calyx Books, Beacon Press, Random House, and Kent State University Press-rather than by nursing presses. Many nurse-writers have won impressive literary awards-including National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships-which have no connection to nursing or medicine. It seems to me that nurses who write are finding new and exciting outlets and are being recognized not as nurse-writers but as writers.
Yet, within the halls of nursing and medical education, until we move beyond myth and presumption and accept that nurses and doctors are co-workers in the same mysterious and amazing world of caregiving; that we all long to find ways to deal with the complicated emotions our work engenders; that we all want to know what others like us are thinking and feeling; and that we all have essential stories and important contributions to make to students and to the humanities canon-well, until then, we nurses who write, although literary equals to physicians who write, will not enjoy equal recognition.
Commentary by Thomas Lawrence Long, Associate Professor-in-Residence, School of Nursing, University of Connecticut
Well, that was easy.
Now name three physician authors who are part of the Western literary canon.
Hippocrates. Galen. The author of the Gospel According to Luke and of Acts of the Apostles. Hildegard of Bingen. Charles Eastman. Arthur Conan Doyle. Anton Chekhov. William Carlos Williams. Oliver Goldsmith. Thomas Browne. John Polidori. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Lewis Thomas. Thomas Bowdler (unfortunately).
An embarrassment of riches. That was easier still.
Now name three nurse authors, who are either writing today or are part of the literary canon.
All right, I'll give you twenty-four hours to get back to me.
Where Are the Nurse Writers?
Paradoxically, the healthcare professional field established by a prolific Victorian English author, Florence Nightingale (whose 1859 Notes on Nursing: What Nursing Is, What Nursing is Not has never gone out of print), finds few of its writers on the tips of our tongues. And even at the origins of professional nursing in the United States during the Civil War, one of America's most beloved authors, Louisa May Alcott, started her literary career with Hospital Sketches, an account of her experiences as a nurse in a military hospital.
Why are there so few well known nurse authors? And what nurse writers are ready to be discovered by a larger audience?
When I have asked nurse editors and scholars the first question, the answers have centered on two points. First, nursing has often been viewed (and until recently nurses viewed themselves) as ancillary, literally ancilla, handmaiden, a feminized, subservient profession deferring to the physician. Not only was the nurse not expected to have insights into the human condition; she (and the nurse usually was female) did not have the "room of one's own" to enable reflection and literary productivity. The physician had his (and the physician usually was a man) office as a retreat, while nurses just had . . . the nurses station-a public location at the hub of medical care and utterly lacking in privacy or solitude.
Second, nurses often were not educated for their profession in the tradition of the liberal arts and sciences. Instead they were frequently trained in hospital nursing programs, or since the second half of the twentieth century at community colleges in two-year associate of science degree programs. Baccalaureate programs in nursing have been a feature of the nursing curriculum since earlier in the twentieth century, but many nurses even today are not the products of that broadly general education.
Nurses seem uniquely equipped, however, to comprehend the whole person of the patient, spending considerably more time with the sick than physicians do and aware of the entire psychological, social, and spiritual inflections of their patients. Nurses have historically been encouraged to keep journals and diaries of their clinical experiences, so the raw material for memoir is in fact at hand. As Jane E. Schultz observes of the contrast between clinical accounts by Civil War military physicians and those by their nurses:Though nurses' styles of self-expression differed widely, they wrote about their patients with a singular degree of material specificity, and they resisted surgeons' tendency to blur patients' individual characteristics. In their letters and diaries, they referred to patients by name, frequently mentioning hometowns, culinary tastes, or other distinguishing details. Often they quoted their conversations with soldiers, which surgeons who kept diaries rarely did. . . Surgeons' diaries do not show nearly the same individualization of suffering. They were more likely to refer to their patients in the abstract or to refer to the clinical details of a particular treatment without mentioning the soldier's name at all. (378-379)
Civil War nurse diaries are among the more vivid and moving accounts of the war, whether from the hand of the domestic Louisa May Alcott, or the sensationalist S. Emma E. Edmonds, author of the memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Moreover, feminist critic and literary scholar Elaine Showalter in an introduction to Florence Nightingale has characterized Nightingale as a major literary figure in English feminism, bridging Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century and Virginia Woolf in the twentieth.
Who are Nightingale's literary descendants working today? They are men and women, and they are many. They are working in a variety of genres, and their work has earned frequent anthologizing. Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer's two collections, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (1995) and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses (2003), have brought nurse writers to a wider audience. Schaefer's more recent anthology, The Poetry of Nursing: Poems and Commentaries of Leading Nurse-Poets, gives 15 nurse poets the space to present and to comment on three or four of their own poems, an unusual and engaging meta-analysis. An accomplished poet, Davis is also a talented essayist, whose recently published The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing encapsulates the relationship between clinical practice and writing:. . . I find that when I'm not seeing patients, it's a struggle for me to write. It seems that for me, nursing and writing have become, over the years, inextricably bound. That intimate connection that links us, human to human, is essential both to my vocation and my avocation. (98)
Writers like Davis and Schaefer, Jeanne Bryner, Theodore Deppe, Veneta Masson, have published their work in distinguished literary journals, such as Minnesota Review, Prairie Schooner, Hudson Review, Poetry, The Sun, and Kenyon Review, as well as in their own books published by respected presses.
These nurse writers join an eclectic canon. Katherine Prescott Wormeley (1830-1908), an American nurse in the Civil War, was a highly respected literary translator, who turned works by Balzac, Daudet, and Dumas to English. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (1835-1905), an American children’s author and editor, wrote under the pen name Susan Coolidge. Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940) was a community health activist and author of two memoirs, The House on Henry Street (1911) and Windows on Henry Street (1934). Ellen LaMotte (1873-1961) published several books, including travel and wartime nursing narratives. In addition, today nurse scholars publish their research in over 100 journals of nursing science and professional practice.
Florence Nightingale, whose collected works now runs to thirteen volumes in the edition published by the Canadian University of Guelph's Wilfrid Laurier University Press, put pen to paper in the service of a variety causes, not all of them related to health care. As Lytton Strachey observes in his profile of her in Eminent Victorians, Nightingale's dedication to spirituality led her to write a tract on the spiritual wellbeing of working-class artisans:Then, suddenly, in the very midst of the ramifying generalities of her metaphysical disquisitions there is an unexpected turn, and the reader is plunged all at once into something particular, something personal, something impregnated with intense experienceaa virulent invective upon the position of women in the upper ranks of society. Forgetful alike of her high argument and of the artisans, [she] rails through a hundred pages of close print at the falsities of family life, the ineptitudes of marriage, the emptinesses of convention, in the spirit of an Ibsen or a Samuel Butler. Her fierce pen, shaking with intimate anger, depicts in biting sentences the fearful fate of an unmarried girl in a wealthy household. It is a cri du coeur . . .
The best of nursing writing shares this passion, a thirst for justice, an advocacy of vulnerable populations. Nightingale did not suffer fools gladly, and her view of the role of nurses went well beyond the ancillary, for as she wrote, "No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this — ‘devoted and obedient.’ This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse. It would not do for a policeman."
Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: J. Redpath, 1863.
Davis, Cortney. The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.
Davis, Cortney, and Judy Schaefer, eds. Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.
—. Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.
Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Hartford, CT: W. S. Williams & Co., 1865.
Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing: What Nursing Is, What Nursing is Not. London: Duckworth, 1859.
Schaefer, Judy, ed. The Poetry of Nursing: Poems and Commentaries of Leading Nurse-Poets. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006.
Schultz, Jane E. "The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine." Signs, 17.2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 363-392.
Showalter, Elaine. "Florence Nightingale." Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 836-837.
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Putnam, 1918. Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/189/204.html
Wald, Lillian D. The House on Henry Street. New York: Holt, 1915.
—. Windows on Henry Street. Boston: Little, Brown, 1934.
Commentary by Erika Goldman, Editorial Director, Bellevue Literary Press
Our mission at Bellevue Literary Press is to publish books at the nexus of the arts and the sciencesawith a special focus on medicine. What counts for us is high-quality, authoritative writing, which might take the form of well-crafted history of medicine or science, or a novel where illness is a theme, though not necessarily a central one. Some of our authors are physicians, others, full-time writers.
The fun has been in exploring the variety of directions in which we can go while fulfilling our mission. While we focus on narrative nonfiction and literary fiction, we've also done photo essays, creative nonfiction, and a literary anthology. Our first books appeared in the spring of 2007, but we're lucky enough to have already received some major media coverage, including feature pieces in the New York Times and the Associated Press. Even as newspaper and magazine book review sections are shrinking or disappearing, our books are getting significant review attention.
We publish on average six non-fiction and two fiction titles a year. And we're the only trade book publisher (as opposed to academic or professional press) to be directly connected to a major medical centeraNew York University Langone Medical Center. We're proud to have published The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, which we've been promoting to medical schools across the country. Danielle Ofri and her team have created an extensive companion study guide that makes it ideal for course adoption in medical humanities programs.
Our biggest nonfiction success to date has been The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, a history of American psychiatric institutionalization, which was written up in the New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Newsday and the Washington Post. After selling through several printings of the original hardcover, we reissued the book a year later as a paperback.
The work of fiction for which we've gotten the most attention to date is Tinkers by Paul Harding. Recently short-listed for the Center for Fiction's 2009 First Novel Prize, it explores the impact of illness on families and the bonds that link generations. Marilynne Robinson called it "truly remarkable," Publishers Weekly and Library Journal both gave it starred reviews, and it has an avid following among prominent independent booksellers who hand sell it to their customers.
At a time when mainstream publishers are cutting back their lists and staff, we're nicely positioned because we publish well-written, accessible books on subjects that people care about, including medicine and illness. Our material comes to us in a variety of waysavia literary agents or other industry contacts (including our own authors), our friends at the BLR, or "over the transom" (writers contacting us directly)aand our criteria for selection involve an assessment of the style and quality of the writing, how the finished book would serve our mission, and its marketability. We have a relatively small overhead so we don't have to sell tens of thousands of copies to make our business work. We want our books to be read and to carry their costs but as a nonprofit we're not subject to the same intense bottom line pressure that's made the blockbuster mentality dominant in the commercial publishing business.
So while this may be a particularly challenging economic environment for the book business, it's a fascinating moment to be a small press publisher. We're lucky enough to have attracted extraordinary authors, and our distributor, Consortium, has been wonderful, giving us the encouragement and support we need to flourish. If you think you may have a project for us, don't hesitate to be in touch.
Commentary by Jack Coulehan, M.D. M.P.H., Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Fellow, Center for Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Stony Brook University, New York
Many authors who write about empathy in medicine are careful to draw a bright line between sympathy and empathy. For example, Hojat in his excellent survey of research on Empathy in Patient Care, considers the two concepts as almost dichotomous, albeit with a small area of overlap. (1) In this categorization, empathy is a cognitive attribute that allows us to understand the selfhood of another person, or, as Hojat puts it, "the kind and quality of the patient's experiences." (1, p. 12) Alternatively, sympathy is an affective or emotional attribute that plays a somewhat ambiguous, if not detrimental, role in medical practice. The bottom line message is that experiencing too much sympathy for patients distorts the clinician's medical judgment, thus harming the patient; and at the same time causes the clinician to "absorb" too much suffering, thus leading to professional burn-out. Interestingly, these authors seem unconcerned about the question of too little sympathy. Presumably, they agree that clinicians ought to care for their patients, i.e. feel-for or have compassion. Therefore, they must believe that a modest amount of sympathy is essential for patient care, but they never discuss how to develop or maintain sympathy. Their main concern is that it not be confused with empathy.
Empathy is a hard nut to crack because it challenges the conventional medical opinion that thinking is thinking and feeling is feeling and never the twain shall meet. Empathy is a process by which we try to understand other people's experience: how they feel, where they are coming from. To the extent that we accomplish this, we are considered empathic and should score highly on a reliable test of this quality. Thus, empathy is a cognitive process, but the content (the known) includes emotions. To "know" emotions we have to feel them. Jodi Halpern uses the term resonance emotions to describe these feelings generated in the clinician as she practices empathy. (2) She writes, "The special professional skill of clinical empathy is distinguished by the use of this subjective, experiential input for specific, cognitive aims. Empathy has as its goal imagining how it feels to be in another person’s situation." (3)
I speak of "practicing," rather than "having," empathy because I want to focus on the professional skill component, rather than the natural endowment (i.e. more or less hardwired) component. In Howard Spiro's famous essay "What is empathy and can it be taught?" he answers the second question with a qualified "yes." He writes that "a better question might be, 'Can we recover the empathy we once had?'" (4) Arguing that the process of medical education tends to diminish our openness to others' feelings and experience, Spiro believes that enhancing clinical empathy is more of a restoration project, rather than a pedagogical one. Perhaps he overstates the case, but it is clear that medical education tends to narrowly focus students' attention on patients-as-objects, thus down-regulating their receptors for experiencing patients-as-subjects. It can be argued that concepts like detachment, detached concern, and clinical distance describe an unfortunate situation that needs to be remedied, rather than a professional ideal.
What does this have to do with sympathy? I take sympathy to mean an emotional state in which we desire to "feel another person's emotions better" (Hojat's language, 1, p. 11). In clinical medicine this translates to "connect with" another person's suffering. In other words, to have sympathy for a patient is to have genuine care or compassion for that patient. Perhaps it is useful to warn students against submerging themselves in excessive sympathy, but I doubt it. After many years of observing medical students, residents, and senior physicians in practice, I don't believe that over-identification with patients is much of a problem. Some doctors seem not to connect with their patients as persons. In other words, patients don't engage much of a sympathetic response. I suspect these non-sympathetic doctors would also score poorly if they were subjected to an accurate test of clinical empathy. another group of doctors seem genuinely to care for their patients. They have a great deal of sympathy for patients. However, these clinicians appear to have the emotional resilience that allows them to experience sympathetic feelings, but also maintain a clinical perspective. I suspect these sympathizers would also score highly if they were subjected to an accurate test of clinical empathy.
Empathy and Sympathy
This brings me back to the original distinction between empathy and sympathy. I agree that a distinction exists, but I submit that the relationship is more complicated than most writers portray it. In many ways sympathy and empathy parallel one another: sympathetic clinicians tend to work harder at being empathic; unsympathetic doctors tend not to devote much effort to empathy. At the same time, empathy is clearly a cognitive process by which we may approximate an understanding of another's situation and feelings, while sympathy is an emotional state of affirming the other person while experiencing something of his or her suffering.
Let me conclude with the following observations:
1. Empathy precedes sympathy. I can't sympathize with a person unless I have some understanding of how he or she feels.
2. Sympathy feeds empathy. My feeling-for a person's suffering makes me more likely to engage that person empathically.
3. Clinicians are more likely to be compromised by having insufficient sympathy than by having excessive sympathy.
4. My use of the term "sympathy" may be somewhat at variance with the way Hojat and others define it. However, I believe that, insofar as the versions are different, my version corresponds better with common usage, while their version, in which sympathy is considered egoistic as opposed to altruistic (1), is somewhat confusing and perhaps a straw man.
1. Hojat M. Empathy in Patient Care. New York, Springer, 2009, pp. 10-15
2. Halpern J. Empathy: Using resonance emotions in the service of curiosity. In: Spiro H et al (Eds.) Empathy and the Practice of Medicine, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 160-73.
3. Halpern J. What is clinical empathy? J Gen Intern Med. 2003; 18: 670-674
4. Spiro H. What is empathy and can it be taught? In: Spiro H et al (Eds.) Empathy and the Practice of Medicine, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992