Kafka, Radiohead, and the making of the modern doctor

The Art of Medicine
By STEPHEN BEALE  |  December 14, 2011

It was their worst nightmare. Or so Professor Arnold Weinstein told the class.

One hundred Brown medical students listened last week as Weinstein — a comparative literature professor with a Mark Twain-esque mop of white hair and matching moustache — retold, in graphic detail, a Franz Kafka short story about a country doctor who was stripped naked and forced into bed with a fatally wounded patient as some kind of perverse punishment for his failure to cure the boy.

It was but one lesson from "Humanities as Medical Instruments," a mandatory workshop for first-year students at the Alpert Medical School that aimed to bring the complexities of literature — and music and poetry and the like — to bear on the study of medicine.

In the Anatomy Lab, students turned from scalpels and cadavers to clay sculptures of a nude model. They had barely an hour to build up what they have spent the better part of a semester cutting apart: the human body.

"Here people are little bit afraid," said the instructor, Dr. Curtis Perry, gesturing towards one of the completed clay sculptures, dwarfed by a nearby headless skeleton. "I mean our model had a little bit of a belly and so people were kind of like — I don't know maybe they were being politically correct in not wanting to add a little belly. But that's what she was."

Perry — a self-proclaimed surgeon-artist — lumbered from one table to another, offering a lively mix of art criticism and Anatomy 101.

"You see a nice nod here to the spine . . . But again, a little bit lacking in the superior volume of the thorax," Curtis told one student. "Remember, you kind of like looked at boobs and stopped and you've got to remember the boobs are sitting on a barrel."

In other workshops, students acted out skits, drew comics, listened to a little Radiohead, and dabbled in creative writing.

"It always felt to me that the most important skills I brought to the bedside were my writing skills — the lessons I learned, the way to look at the world that I use when I am sitting down to create characters," said Dr. Jay Baruch, an ER doctor at Rhode Island Hospital who led a workshop on creative writing. "I look at my patients as characters and I understand [their] stories."

But one story had students in a music-and-comics workshop stumped. Their task seemed simple enough: listen to a piano suite by French composer Maurice Ravel and compare it with the poem that inspired it. What the students didn't know was that their instructor had passed out three different poems — all from the same author, but only one matching the music.

"I think a lot times there is kind of — in medicine especially — there's always a sense of things don't always quite fit well and what do you do when things don't really fit well?" said the instructor, Kevin Liou, a second-year med student.

His experiment, such as it was, worked. The music — an eerie trilling that wandered aimlessly for minutes on end — told different stories to the students, depending on which poem they had. For one, it was the rude awakening of the sun. For others, it was a romance ruined, a tale of hunters and bunnies, or a corpse on the gallows.

They were all, one might say, a bit Kafkaesque.

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