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The Artful Doctor

June 6, 2000

Judith Zwolak
Michael DeMocker

A med school program with the quirky name of Students against right Brain atrophy gives new meaning to the idea of the "medical arts." It's all in the hands. They touch your back, they press on your neck, they cradle your chin as the doctor looks down your throat. They poke. They probe. Sometimes they simply seek to console.

The hands of the doctor, the nurse, the person who takes your blood are their most important instruments. They read the lump in your breast or they steady your arm for the invasion of a needle. Their touch is professional, yet personal. Who else do you allow to touch you? Your family and friends, perhaps, but not your lawyer or accountant. Second-year Tulane medical student Cat-Tien Vo hopes to explore the mercurial nature of hands in health care through a personal photography project squeezed in between her classes and studying.

Her black-and-white photographs document the hands of Tulane doctors, students, nurses and other medical professionals at work. "The whole purpose is to explore the idea of laying the hands on patients," says Vo, who is also a 1996 Newcomb College graduate. "Hands are often the first things a patient sees. A lot of time they give comfort to a patient." Vo's project is an artistic release from her studies, but it also allows her to contemplate the human side of medicine, the aspect not often touched on in her textbooks or classroom activities.

Not one to neglect her creative, right side of the brain under the decidedly methodical, left-brain rigors of medical school, Vo is an energetic proponent of a balanced medical education. To help her fellow students tap into their creative reserves, Vo serves as cochair of the new program at Tulane's School of Medicine with the somewhat playful name, "Students Against Right Brain Atrophy." SARBA aims to complement the scientific and technological focus of medical studies with creative activities.

The program sponsors classes and activities in the performing arts, the culinary arts, visual arts and writing. Members need not be accomplished artists or musicians to belong--an active interest in mining one's creative potential is all that's required. SARBA's mission statement says it all: "We seek to inspire passion not only for healing, but for learning and living as well."

Only in its second year, the program has organized a variety of professional music lessons in jazz, funk, blues and rock as well as a series of drawing and creative writing classes.

Through the program, med students have explored various cooking techniques and learned swing-dancing moves from a professional instructor. To showcase the wealth of musical talent at the school, the group also organized and funded the 30 faculty members and students who teamed up to produce a CD of Christmas music and then donated the proceeds from the sale of the recording to charity. All of this is nearly unimaginable to the program's benefactor, a Tulane alum whose medical school experience was vastly different from that of his younger colleagues.

A Doctor's Life

When Charles Prosser entered Tulane University School of Medicine in 1940, the normal pressure associated with medical studies intensified with the possibility that the country would soon enter the conflict that would become World War II. Working under an accelerated schedule, Prosser and his fellow students studied from dawn until late in the night, their medical training taking precedence above everything else in their lives.

"We didn't have any time to do anything but work and go to sleep," he says. "That's for the birds; it's not a good way to spend your life, especially if it deprives you of all the cultural aspects of life."

Now retired after 40 years as an internist in Baton Rouge, La., Prosser and his wife, Louise Peterman Prosser (N '44), decided to save future Tulane medical students from cultural deprivation. Together, they donated $60,000 to endow a program that would expose students to "life-enriching and personality-rounding humanities."

Prosser, who claims his major creative achievement was the conception of eight children, says the gift was a way to help medical students as well as their families, their patients and the community. "I've always had a strong feeling that in premed and medical school, they trained you but they didn't educate you," he says. "We decided to try something that would benefit the students, who we think would be better citizens and better human beings if they had a little of the humanities in their lives during their school years."

Besides his eight children and 20 grandchildren, Prosser's other creative interests include a passion for writing. After 32 years as a physician, he began a weekly column called "A Doctor's Journal" for the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate. Based primarily on the events in his practice and his thoughts on medicine and health, the columns have been collected and published in two books, Second Opinions and Second Thoughts.

Breezy and straightforward, Prosser's writings reveal a caring doctor's perspective on the business, the science and the art of medicine. He even has tried his hand at writing a novel, crafting a Michael Crichton-esque tale of genetically engineered immortality.

With two physicians as the protagonists, the subject matter provided Prosser with a wealth of ideas. "When you think about it, what happens when everybody keeps on living?" he says. "Undertakers go out of business, and so do the doctors and hospitals. Social Security is a big mess." Prospective publishers have been kind to Prosser's invitation to review his manuscript but, so far, haven't made a commitment. "I've received a couple of very, very polite rejection slips," he says.

Prosser's gift to Tulane medical students, however, has received a more enthusiastic reception. "I got involved in SARBA because it's a wonderful idea to focus on something that's the exact opposite of my medical studies," says Kristi Kleinschmit, a second-year student.

Cochair of the group's culinary committee, Kleinschmit helped organize cooking classes in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, a wine-tasting event and a cake-decorating class during the school year. "Our big event this year will be a potluck showcase of all of our favorite dishes," she says, adding that the group plans to publish a cookbook of student and faculty recipes. Also this spring, Joshua Yellin (T '98), first-year med student, taught a three-week workshop on figure drawing with SARBA support.

"It was a great way to meet other people in the class," he says. "It shows students that we don't have to be that competitive. That's something I love about Tulane--it fosters community." That sentiment is echoed throughout the school--students all tout Tulane's atmosphere of support and collegiality.

Although rigorous, Tulane's medical school attracts and admits students with a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities. In gross anatomy lab, Juilliard-trained musicians and professional dancers rub elbows with students straight out of college premed programs.

The fellowship that develops feeds into SARBA's goal of producing more well-rounded individuals. "Medical school can be a dehumanizing process," says Vo. "I think being in touch with the more emotional, more artful side of yourself can be beneficial in the way you act with people. SARBA is providing students with the opportunities to develop themselves this way."

Creativity and Medicine

The conundrum has long intrigued SARBA's faculty adviser Paul Rodenhauser: Medical education seems to stifle creativity, yet the creative arts fascinate and permeate the medical profession.

Rodenhauser, professor of psychiatry, assistant dean for academic and counseling services and director of medical student education for psychiatry, has written and lectured widely on creativity and medicine. A writer in his spare time and a popular student adviser, Rodenhauser shares Prosser's goals of encouraging students to embrace the humanities and creative arts as they study medicine.

He knows firsthand the costs of deferring a creative interest. "It wasn't until a few years ago that I gave myself permission to write," he says. "I couldn't find the time or energy until later in life."

A well-balanced life makes for a healthier medical student, resident and physician, Rodenhauser argues. The exacting nature of medical education, however, works directly against creative endeavors.

"Medical education depends on a certain amount of compulsivity," he says. "We take people from college who have achieved in many ways that require a lot of order and the sacrifice of spontaneity in their lives. Then we bring them to medical school and make it worse because med school is memorization and feedback, precision and order."

Pondering the link between the creative arts and medicine led Rodenhauser to research theories of creativity for an article he wrote for The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha, the journal of the medical honor society. While theories are diverse, they often point to a creative person's ability to enjoy time alone, daydreaming and fantasizing. Medical school encourages the exact opposite behavior, Rodenhauser says. "The dyed-in-the-wool physician can't tolerate inactivity; he can't have nothing to do."

Still, we have doctors who are also artists, dancers and musicians, he says, including some who are incredibly gifted. Writers Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams and Louisiana's Walker Percy were all trained as physicians.

Famous landscape painter Carl Gustav Carus has a distinguished career in medicine, as did Hermann von Helmholtz, the inventor of the ophthalmoscope and composer of a famous libretto in an Antonio Salieri opera. Geoffrey Beene made it through a year of medical school at Tulane before leaving to pursue a successful career in fashion design.

The connection between artistic prowess and talent in medicine may lie in the individual's discipline and alertness, which also are elements of creativity, Rodenhauser says. He uses music to illustrate the association.

"Musicians are much more mathematically minded than you think," he says. "The effect music has on us is emotional, but what goes into the composition is very different from what we get out of it. Our emotions respond to the composer's structure."

The structure and discipline of creative and medical pursuits may complement each other. Painting, playing music and writing can serve to keep mental muscles in shape for the memorization and critical thinking necessary in medical school. These activities can also relieve the stress associated with med school's intense schedule.

"There is some therapeutic effect," Rodenhauser says. "That's part of our intent, to help people maintain and develop skills in the arts that will serve as a focus during hard times in training or in medicine."

Rodenhauser, who graduated from the Thomas Jefferson College of Medicine in Philadelphia in 1963, recalls the punishing, competitive years of his medical education. At Jefferson almost four decades ago, times were different. There, he lived and breathed medicine for four years, looking forward to a communal lunch on Sundays as his only brief respite from classes, clinical rotations and studying.

"Ours was a monastic experience," he says. "Medical education has changed a lot. I think the fact that activities like SARBA exist tells students that the arts are important and that everyone can afford the time to take advantage of them."

Art from the Heart

Eric Deussing takes the time to nurture his right brain, traveling the four miles between the medical center and uptown each week to participate in a glass sculpture class.

"I've only recently gotten into sculpture," says Deussing, a 1998 Tulane College graduate and cochair of SARBA with Vo. "It helps me work out some of the problems. I use it not only as an expression of certain passions and emotions, but also as a kind of thought process."

There's plenty to think about in medical school, not the least of which is the students' newly minted power to save, or fail to save, someone's life.

"Medicine gives you material to think about," he says. "I look at my friends who are getting master's degrees in fine arts and I say, 'Wow, wouldn't it be great to devote all of my time to that?' " Deussing says. "But then I think about what the subject matter in their lives is that they're drawing from." Rob Corley, musician, songwriter and third-year student, says playing and writing music not only relieves stress, but complements his medical studies.

Monthly acoustic sets at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse balance nicely with his intense year of clinical clerkships.

"Being creative has helped me in medicine by helping me reason out things better," Corley says. "In medicine, you're presented with a problem and you have no idea what this patient has and you need to be innovative in your thinking. You're not stuck in a certain method of thinking. I think the more you use your brain, the smarter and faster and better it works."

As a stress buster, creative pursuits on the whole are healthier and more productive than certain methods of relaxation most often favored by students. "Playing the guitar or the piano is a good, cheap release from stress," says Mark Kwong, first-year student and cochair of SARBA's performing arts committee. "You can go out and get drunk, but that's not generally in your best interest before an exam."

Kwong and his fellow students have organized musician workshops for SARBA, bringing in professional musicians to explain the philosophy and techniques behind different genres of music such as blues, funk and New Orleans rhythm and blues.

The workshops include a classwide jam session. "It's nice to play with other people," he says. "I think a lot of the students have rediscovered the enjoyment of playing with others through these workshops." Plans for next year include a voice workshop with local gospel singers, Kwong adds.

For some students in SARBA, their artistic interests dovetail with their professional goals. Joshua Yellin, second-year student and visual artist, majored in biology as a Tulane undergrad, but never lost his interest in drawing, particularly figure drawing. "I was actually thinking about going into animation for awhile," Yellin says. "I chose medical school over a career in the creative arts, but I want to be a plastic surgeon, which requires that little extra artistic vision."

Rodenhauser's vision for the future of SARBA includes developing an elective in the fourth year that focuses on creativity. "Perhaps it could be a month-long elective that could help students get back in touch with who they were before they went into med school," he says. With little room in the curriculum to make space for a new course, Rodenhauser says he's happy to see SARBA remain a popular extracurricular program.

"I'd like to see the program become a major influence in the lives of students and a constant reminder of the importance of enriching one's repertoire of skills and abilities outside of medicine," he says. "When they reach another stage of life, wherever that might be, they have more to talk about, more to enjoy and they may even excel in some of those areas."

The medical students say they appreciate the opportunity Tulane gives them to cultivate their artistic sides while they study medicine.

"It's not like Tulane is an easy med school and we have all this time on our hands to sing and dance and paint and draw," Deussing says. "But we're encouraged to make the time. You can excel in academics, but don't forget you're a person, too."

Judith Zwolak is an editor in the Office of University Publications. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Tulanian.


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