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Mixing medicine with art and literature

An unusual course in the School of Medicine asks questions other classes leave off the syllabus.

Medicine and Literature, an elective course offered to first- and second-year medical students, has participants discuss readings on the patient experience, gender and medicine, medical mistakes and a number of other topics.

The cover image of the Spring 2014 edition of Mixed Gears was created by Geneviève Rochon-Terry. Supplied image

The small class of about 12 students reads selections of poetry, fiction and memoir before coming together in a seminar-style setting to converse about them.

“A lot of current medicine practice focuses on developing empathy in the practitioner and I think engaging with writing is an excellent way to do that,” says Dr. Sadiqa Khan, one of the course’s instructors. “Reading allows you to see the world through a different set of eyes and absorb the experiences of another person.”

Now co-instructing the course with Dr. Shayna Watson, Dr. Khan, Meds’06, has been teaching at Queen’s since 2008. The Medicine and Literature course though, has a much longer history.

Originally offered to both students in the Faculty of Law as well as med students, the course was called “Images of Doctors and Lawyers in Literature.” Co-taught by Professor Mark Weisberg (Law) and Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, it became a solely medical course after Weisberg’s retirement in 2010.   

An enduringly popular course, Dr. Khan rotates the syllabus every year because so many students like to take it two years in a row.

“Medical school can be frightening,” she says. “You’re close to a lot of human suffering and there’s the potential to make serious mistakes. Doctors are always meant to project an aura of competence, but with this course we want students to engage with their vulnerabilities. Our readings, by people with medical and non-medical backgrounds, often echo the fears and experiences of the students.”

Medicine and Literature also has two optional creative writing classes, where students get to practice their storytelling. One is held in the class, while the other takes the class to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre to look for inspiration.

From work done inside and outside of class, Dr. Khan and the students created Mixed Gears, an anthology that showcases their poetry, fiction, essays and visual art.

“I’m so proud of the students and I think the anthology is amazing,” says Dr. Khan. “The work they brought forward is excellent and the willingness they’ve shown to engage with difficult topics makes me feel optimistic about our future doctors.”

Hollis Roth, Meds’16, took the class in both her first and second years in medical school.

“It was a way of looking at medicine we don’t always get,” she says. “We spoke not just as students and prospective doctors, but as people who have ourselves been patients or have had experiences with medicine through family members.”

Because the class also welcomes drop-ins from those not enrolled in the course, Ms. Roth was able to meet upper-year medical students as well. “We mostly stick with our year’s cohort, so it was really nice to be able to connect with upper years,” she says. “To hear they had gone through the same experiences and had been overwhelmed like I was has been important for me.” 

This article is published in the Sept. 9 edition of the Gazette. Pick up your copy of the newspaper at one of the many locations around campus. Follow us on Twitter at @queensuGazette.