Now, thirty-two years after graduating from nursing school at the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I can safely say that the single most important course I took in nursing school was not even in nursing. Rather, it was a health humanities/medical ethics course taught in the School of Medicine by a hospital chaplain, Reverend Bob.
Reverend Bob (I forget his last name) focused this course on death and dying and used a small weekly seminar, reading and writing group format. There were approximately ten students, all first or second year medical students except for me. I was in my first year of undergraduate nursing school and struggling to not flunk or drop out. Have I mentioned that I despised nursing school and vowed to never ever teach or go near a nursing school ever again once I graduated?
Now (again), after twenty-one years teaching undergraduate nursing courses here at the University of Washington in Seattle, I can safely say that the Reverend Bob’s health humanities course is the single most influential course on my own teaching. Health humanities matters now more than ever.
According to the International Health Humanities Network based in the UK, this is what ‘health humanities’ is and does:
“Health Humanities draws upon the multiple and expanding fields of enquiry that link health and social care disciplines with the arts and humanities. It aims to encourage innovation and novel cross-disciplinary explorations of how the arts and humanities can inform and transform healthcare, health and well-being. It calls for a much richer body of work that breaks out of limited applications of the arts and humanities to any specific healthcare discipline, as in the medical humanities, which to date has been largely preoccupied with training medical practitioners. As a more inclusive and applied field of activity with a fast-growing international community of researchers, health humanities looks to generate diverse and even radical approaches for creating healthier and more compassionate societies.”
For Reverend Bob’s health humanities/death and dying course, we completed a final portfolio of poems and prose we had written over the semester as reflection on the course content and on our own personal and professional lives. Below, I include photographs of some of the poems (and rough sketches) I included in my final portfolio. Reverend Bob gave me an A-plus for the course. But the grade doesn’t matter to me as much as the lasting solace his course has given me over the many years of my work as a nurse–and as a nurse educator. Thanks Reverend Bob! Thanks to all of the important hospital chaplains out there–no matter what their faith or spiritual persuasion.