Marrying Medicine with Art

By Kitty McConnell
From the April 2013 issue of Columbus CEO

Most film buffs and fans of popular literature are familiar with illness narratives—storylines that follow a central character through health-care challenges. But few patients consider how such stories affect medical care.

Ohio State University humanities scholars have teamed with the College of Medicine to explore the intersection of art and medical science for the multidisciplinary conference Narrative Medicine in the 21st Century and complementary Narrative Medicine: A Film & Comix Series at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

The Wex will highlight documentaries, animated digital comics and feature films on everything from mental illness to terminal diseases. Curated by Dana Renga, an OSU assistant professor of Italian who specializes in film, the series includes Bette Davis in 1939’s Dark Victory alongside contemporary portrayals such as Julian Schnabel’s 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The series runs through April 16.

The April 5-6 conference includes discussions on topics including graphic narrative medicine literature and a roundtable talk “From Page to Bedside,” featuring College of Medicine faculty and graduates.

A first-of-its-kind event for OSU, the project—in the works for a year and a half—was conceived to bring the burgeoning field of medical narrative study to a campus that is a center for both the arts and medical care.

“The big, big, big picture is that we want to change the way society talks about illness,” says organizer Julia Nelson Hawkins, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Greek and Latin. “Historians of medicine, scholars, cultural critics like Susan Sontag … have really shown that the ways we talk about disease influences the way we treat the sick in a subconscious way.”

The idea initially got a lukewarm reception from faculty physicians. “There was a lot of resistance at first,” says Hawkins, who says a number of doctors lamented that the fast pace of their work left them little time to “listen to life stories.” She found a kindred spirit in Dr. John Vaughn, a physician in the Department of Family Medicine and Student Health Services. Vaughn, a proponent of narrative medicine, leads a seminar in literature for medical students.

Hawkins hopes the event will address issues important to the future of health care and higher education at a time when both are in need of reform: “How can we A) change and help shape 21st century medicine to bring back in a sort of humanistic perspective, and B) how can we save the humanities in a period of extreme competition with the sciences? I think medicine is where the rubber meets the road.”

Kitty McConnell