The Department of Humanities: Once a ‘curiosity,’ now an ‘awakening’

February 13, 2012 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

When medical students from Penn State College of Medicine  make their Friday call at the Downtown Daily Bread soup kitchen in Harrisburg, it’s more than an exercise in providing counsel and comfort to the homeless. The brainchild of professor Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., this outreach illustrates one way the institution reaches “far beyond our boundaries,” according to Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Humanities at the College of Medicine.

The students’ service is part of a larger goal of the Department of Humanities and the College of Medicine to produce compassionate healers, or, as Shapiro says, “clinicians and scholars who are not only technologically sophisticated but also sophisticated about matters of the human body, mind, and spirit.”

Humanities historical marker photo

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The Department of Humanities at Penn State Hershey has been a model for other medical schools. Founded in 1967, the College of Medicine is young by medical school standards. But it’s also a pioneer as the first U.S. medical school with a Department of Humanities, a fixture since its inception. “This department has really been a springboard for founding other kinds of programs and centers and departments in many medical schools across the country,” says Philip Wilson, Ph.D., historian of medicine and science and professor of humanities.“What was first a curiosity became an awakening.” The founder of the Department of Humanities is considered a pioneer in humanistic medicine—E. A.Vastyan, who died in 2010 in Harrisburg. Vastyan was an Episcopal priest and chaplain at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when founding Dean, George Harrell, recruited him to Hershey. “The fact that this institution was founded with a humanities department is one piece of data to support that that mission has been incorporated into the heart of the place from the start,” says Shapiro.

At the time, bioethics and medical humanities were curiosities in medicine. Vastyan then recruited K. Danner Clouser and Joanne Trautman Banks, whom, as former department chair David Barnard, Ph.D., J.D., relates, became the first philosopher and English professor, respectively, to have fulltime appointments at a U.S. medical school. “They were the stalwarts who really created the concept,” Barnard says. Barnard, now a professor of medicine and law at the University of Pittsburgh, was the humanities department chair at the College of Medicine through the 1990s. “The fundamental concept which continues to be valid, is the experience of caring for sick people is much more than the application of science and technology,” Barnard says. “It’s also about engaging the importance of the personal human experience of being sick and that involves peoples’ values, their sense of personal identity, religious belief, or absence of religious belief.”

As in real estate, location of the medical school also makes it unique, according to David J. Hufford, Ph.D., University Professor Emeritus and acting chair and chair of humanities at Penn State Hershey from 2002 to 2007. “In many medical schools the contribution from the humanities is offered part-time by people who are full-time in the Department of Arts and Science, because the medical school is on a campus surrounded by humanities and science faculty,” Hufford says. “Hershey is not, and while that presents some challenges, I always felt that it was a very positive thing. It meant that anybody who came to Hershey and stayed must be doing it because they want to work in medicine.”

Today the Department of Humanities has nine full-time faculty and seven joint faculty. Also under its umbrella is the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine, which provides grants for service trips to underserved countries, humanitarian awards for residents and medical and nursing students, and sponsors a chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society—the group that visits the soup kitchen under Dellasega’s tutelage. “On the surface a lot of people in medicine might look on what we do as soft material, but it certainly touches on the art of medicine,” says James Ballard, M.D., professor of medicine, pathology and humanities and Lawrence F. Kienle Chair for Humane Medicine. “That is a necessary part of the physician’s practice if they are going to do what the patient wants from them. They have to know how to be artful in their practice.” Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Ph.D., joined the department as a professor in 1991. “It just seemed very exciting to move into a milieu that was still quite new and quite novel,” Hawkins, now retired, recalls. “It meant that the skills that I had developed as a Ph.D. could actually be used in bridging the humanities and the practical.” To build that bridge, she started a program that assigns first-year students to follow a patient in the patient’s home. “The idea behind that was to get them out of the hospital and, in a sense, in a setting where the patient is in control,” she says. The course parallels the first-year anatomy course, and the exercise involves not letting students see patient charts “until they really had a sense of the patient’s story.” Adds Hawkins, “The important thing was there was often a disparity between the chart is it represented these patients and the person.” The program continues to this day, according to Shapiro.

The department also developed a series of courses on philosophy, literature, and chronic illness for Penn State Hershey faculty, and started annual retreats for senior residents. “We talk about things like what do you do if you make a medical mistake that hurts a patient, dealing with death and dying, dealing with other difficult aspects of medicine that are harder to talk about in a quick and dirty little conference on campus,” Barnard says.

The department also publishes a literary magazine, Wild Onions, to which staff, students, residents, and even patients can contribute; a monthly newsletter, Perspectives from the Humanities, in which faculty write about different aspects of medicine; and the International Journal of Health and Humanities for the worldwide academic community. A “vibrant” drama program run out of the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine engages staff and students in one-act plays “highlighting the human experience,” according to Shapiro.

Meanwhile, department scholars are working on important social issues. Benjamin Levi, M.D., an expert on child abuse, has done work on the ethical implications of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Michael Green, M.D., has devoted his work to end of life issues, particularly in making advance directives more effective. Dellasega has published several books on relational violence and bullying. “You can see that our faculty are working in applied areas that have important consequences for society,” says Shapiro.

Going forward, the department is aiming to make a difference beyond the College of Medicine to the entire Medical Center campus. “The department is transitioning now from being focused exclusively on strong scholarship and strong teaching to also focusing on the front-line clinicians and patients who are here as well as training residents,” Shapiro says. “We want to continue to make the patient experience better and to have an influence on our clinicians.”
– By Richard M. Kirkner

Entry filed under: Alumni, Features. Tags: , , , , , , .

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