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  • Bruce Campbell MD

Narrative Medicine in the time of COVID-19

I am an educator, but I rarely work in a classroom. As a faculty member at the Medical College of Wisconsin for the past thirty years, I tend to teach medical students and residents in the operating room, at the bedside, in clinics, and in conference rooms. My teaching is one-on-one, face-to-face, elbow-to-elbow. That’s what I’m accustomed to and that’s what has always worked for me. With the arrival of COVID-19, medical students in Wisconsin and around the country were sent home out of a concern for their health. Fourth-year students went from being a few weeks away from obtaining their MDs to becoming “nonessential.” We can’t see them to teach them. Over the past few weeks, medical students have found amazing ways to volunteer in the community. To help keep their education on track, though, I was asked to rapidly develop an online Narrative Medicine course, teaching a topic which I have studied but about which I have never taught. Our team created a syllabus. The students will study stories of ambiguity, pandemic, and the wider world. As we delve into literature, poetry, and art, the emotions and lessons we encounter will help them understand themselves, appreciate their patients, and discern their purposes. It is a shame the pandemic separated students from the work that they are called to do. Being in the hospital would have provided opportunities to learn from faculty, residents, nurses, housekeepers, aides, therapists, social workers, chaplains, dietary workers, and the maintenance people – all of the folks who do their best and put themselves at risk every day. I admit that teaching this course makes me nervous. I will be covering topics about which I am still learning myself and using technology I really don’t understand. As Ray Bradbury once said, I will “jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.” But, that’s okay. I hope that some of the stories we read together will plant seeds that will take root and grow. One day, when they are back working in the hospital, one of the students will meet a patient whose life is glancingly similar to someone we met in a short story, a poem, or a painting. Maybe they will remember. If so, they will be a better physician for that patient. And maybe a better teacher when the next pandemic arrives.

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