This DVD, a documentary of a medical student retreat to a museum, illustrates an approach to cultivating empathic understanding in medical students and residents by using the visual arts.  Florence Gelo, D.Min, created the arts program and the video. She is Behavioral Science Coordinator, Family Medicine Residency, Drexyl University College of Medicine. Students observe closely four paintings and are encouraged to experience their feelings about what they are seeing, and to express those feelings. The paintings are Prometheus Bound (Peter Paul Rubens 1618), Massacre of the Innocents (Pacecco de Rosa 1640), Rachel Weeping (Charles Wilson Peale 1618), and The Agnew Clinic (Thomas Eakins 1889; see annotation in this database).

Prometheus Bound is a disturbing scene of an eagle ripping the liver out of Prometheus. Students comment on the nakedness. the vulnerable position and the helpless expression on the face of this strong man, and on the eye contact between the eagle and Prometheus. In Massacre of the Innocents Dr. Gelo calls our attention to the faces of the mothers, helpless to save their children from the swords. In Rachel Weeping Gelo asks the students if they noticed the vials of medicine before the days of allopathic medicine.  Did they notice the one tear dropping from Rachel's face? (Peale added the medicine vials and his wife weeping to the original portrait of his infant daughter Margaret who died of smallpox.)

Two physician speakers, Horace DeLisser, and Rhonda Soricelli provide additional commentary about how engagement with a painting is similar to engaging with a patient, and how learning technology-focusing on the scientific and the medical- detracts students from learning to look at the big picture and the humanistic side of medicine.  Traditional medical education does not teach doctors to be present to patients, to sit by their sides, to listen and invite dialogue of suffering and to not deny those aspects of what it means to be ill.  Dr. DeLisser further acknowledged his personal struggles with feelings of frustration, anger and grief when patients died in the ICU.  The importance of talking about the vulnerability of physicians, the concerns about what else they might have done, propelled him to develop Grieving Rounds.

A cancer survivor contrasts a "callous" physician's response to her care with  another physician who exemplified someone who has the expertise not only around the disease, but  has the ability to acknowledge the whole person and offer his companionship to be there to the very end: "...what we're going to do is....We'll take this step by step."



A brief video facilitator's guide offers suggestions for interacting with local museums, as well as reminding us to search museum web sites for museum collections on line.  The importance, however, of the literal retreat away from the medical environment to the museum cannot be overstated.   So much of medical education is about memorization--what's true and false and what's right--whereas the invitation to engage with a canvas and then interpret that work by sharing observations and feelings without commenting on others' is non-judgmental.  The humanistic setting provides a safe space to acknowledge suffering in a comforting way.



Film and Guide funded by the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health (GWish). 2009 Family Medicine Through the Visual Arts Award.

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