By Jose Rodriguez, MD
Like many of the residents, medical students and faculty at the University of Utah School of Medicine, I too am new to the area (sort of). I left Utah in 1993, after completing my BA in Latin American Studies at Brigham Young University, for medical school at Cornell, in New York City. To this day I am surprised at the major jump that was, but I am even more surprised and pleased with our recent decision to return to Utah and join the faculty here in the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine.
Utah is more beautiful than I remember, with its picturesque mountains and idyllic landscapes. It is rich with visual beauty, but more than that, it is inspiring. And, the beauty of the sky and the sun on a clear day is truly breathtaking. It makes me want to capture the beauty and share it with my patients.
In a different life, at a former institution, we had the opportunity to do just that—capture and share beauty. And I was able to participate in it through a campus wide creative arts journal which we called HEAL—Humanism Evolving through Arts and Literature. That journal is in its 7th year, and located at a former institution but I would like to share some of the unique things that can be done with a creative arts journal. Since we are in an academic program, I will start with its academic value.
HEAL, Vol 6 (2015) > Rodríguez
Creative arts journals can be studied and the results published in academic journals. Two papers were written based on the creative arts journal, and its impact on students, faculty and staff. Students and shareholders were interviewed, and a second paper was written. It was very interesting to see that the medical students actually got something out of the creative arts journal besides it being a “creative outlet.” Students felt that participating in the journal made them more “patient centered” and that it helped to prevent burnout. In all honestly, I founded the journal to deal with my own burnout. And it worked!
But there is something of far more value that came from the creative arts journal. As I promoted the journal, I shared it with my patients. (At the time, we only saw uninsured patients). And they became very interested in sharing more of themselves. One patient would see me and say, “Dr. Rod, I got a poem for you.” I was thrilled thinking that I would be able to publish some original work from a patient—but it was so much more. He asked me to record it, and I did. We transcribed the poem, which was autobiographical. I learned of my patient’s drug addiction, of the destruction it wrought on his family, and of the desperate cry for redemption that was in his heart. He gave me two other poems before he left the practice.
HEAL, Vol 5 (2014) Howze HEAL, Vol 6 (2015) Howze, Fitzgerald, Kriendler
Another patient, seeing the creative arts journal in the lobby, said, “Dr. Rod, I wrote my story, and I want people to know about it.” With the help of some student transcribers, my patient was able to tell her story. While the details of the story are rich, and sordid—and I doubt I can give it justice here—I was overwhelmed with the trust this patient placed in me, as well as the information I learned about her from working on her book. From a small town in Mississippi to the jungles of Vietnam, she shared the horrors of growing up black in the Jim Crow south, to the nightmare producing experiences fighting a war for a country that did not love her—all the while trying to stay sane watching innocent civilians murdered in remote villages in south Vietnam. The revelations in her book gave me the tools to help her more, but, she said, writing the book helped her to feel “Released.”
Another patient waited over four hours to see me. He wasn’t mad, but he drew a picture of the time that he waited to express his feelings. I asked if he would sign it and give it to me, but he did not want any credit. I took the paper home, photo shopped some colors into it with my son, and it was published as cover art. I will never forget that patient, because his art reminds me that patients sacrifice to see me.
So the sharing of art has helped me connect with patients, and helped patients feel connected with me. That, to me, is the heart of family medicine, and I am looking forward to sharing some art with my patients and colleagues here.
Jose Rodriguez, MD is a Professor (Clinical) in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.