Essay: Narrative Medicine In The Time Of COVID-19

Apr 28, 2020

The coronavirus has transformed how hospitals are operating. Hospitals that once bustled with activity have been reduced to treating only the sickest among us, and many medical students who once roamed the hallways have been sent home out of concern for their health.

Lake Effect contributor Bruce Campbell is a head and neck surgeon who's been teaching medical students at the Medical College of Wisconsin for the past 30 years. He reflects on teaching his students outside of a hospital in this essay titled “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 30 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, all of our 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 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 about which I have studied but for which I have never taught. 

READ: Waiting For Coronavirus

With lots of help, I created a syllabus. The students will study stories of ambiguity, pandemic, and the wider world. As we delve into literature, poetry, and art, I hope that the emotions and lessons we encounter will help them understand themselves, appreciate their patients, and discern their purposes. 

It is a shame that 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 in a hospital 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 OK.

I hope that some of the stories we read together will plant seeds that will take root and grow. One day, when they are allowed back 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 they will be a better teacher when the next pandemic arrives.   

Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell is a head and cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Many of his essays appear on his blog, Reflections in a Head Mirror. Campbell joined WUWM’s Advisory Board in 2013.