My Medical Literature Experience

Throughout the semester in Dr. Tuthill’s Medical Visions in Literature course, we have read literature ranging from the Hippocratic Writings, to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” to Gunther’s memoir about his son Johnny in “Death Be Not Proud,” to Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” and much more.  Throughout the class, we talked about topics ranging from the purpose of medical literature, ethical dilemmas in medicine, medical issues that are captured within literature, the modern use of literature within the medical field, and more.  These topics encouraged thought provoking conversations and discussions within class which I thoroughly enjoyed.  It was very interesting to have a background in biology and develop my own thoughts and opinions about issues, and to hear the thoughts and opinions of an English major or someone who has experienced different things in life or sees a completely different perspective.  Here are some reflections of what was discussed and what I learned during this course:

In the beginning of class, the study of Hippocrates and the early ways of doctoring and medicine established a timeline that depicts the evolution of medicine from a limited understanding of the human body, perceiving medicine as a method of healing but originally not the most preferred or utilized due to the invasiveness of surgery and lack of knowledge about the field of medicine.  As a contextual person, I enjoyed learning about the roots and very beginnings of the field of medicine so that I could put into context how the medical field developed throughout the years and how the perceptions of medicine have changed throughout time.

After reading literature such as “The Journey of Plague Year” and “The Plague” I learned of how drastic and horrible these diseases were.  For something as tiny as a spec of bacteria or a virus to have the potential to wipe-out an entire population gives a testament to the vulnerability of the human body.  In The Plague, we think more about human nature and the fallibility, and conversely, the strength of man as we watch the town of Oran diminish as the plague spreads. 

Then, we began our study of AIDS and it’s breakthrough into American society.  Due to the variety of literature that we read on this topic, the class was able to compile multiple perspectives of this disease to see how it truly affected so many people, society, the medical field, and the health of the World.  We read Abraham Verghese’s work about the man from Tennessee who came home from New York to die with his parents there and they discovered/found out that he was gay.  We were also exposed to Elisapeth Ritchie’s blunt reality of her life as a young female doctor and her interaction with three patients who have acquired AIDS from one way or another.  By reading this literature, it was good to refresh on the dangers of this disease and to never forget that it is still a pressing issue within the World’s community and society today.

In between these larger readings, we read works by William Carlos Williams, Linda Pastan, Heather McHugh, David Schiedermayer, and Lewis Thomas.  All of these reading were very interesting and each presenting a new perspective or aspect of illness, medicine, literature, etc… I especially enjoyed works by William Carlos Williams as he writes about his interpretation of his medical career and the experiences that he has as a doctor and the way in which his writing captures and perfectly explains his thoughts.  The writings by doctors were particularly interesting to me because these stoic men and women who have to always remain strong are able to express a more vulnerable and emotional side than they are generally able to during a typical work day as a doctor.

After reading “The Death of Ivan Illych,” by Tolstoy and “The Snows of Kilamanjaro” by Hemingway, we compared these two men and their reasons for illness and dying and living.  It was interesting to compare a work by a Russian author and a Cuban writer to see how while they were written in different times and on different continents, the themes are so similar.

Margaret Edson’s “Wit” allowed us to read a different genre of literature, a play, and watch the movie to pass some time with Vivian Bearing, a literary scholar who is suffering with terminal ovarian cancer.  We journeyed with her through her last months of life.

We read many other works such as “Ceremony” and smaller works, so even though I did not identify them specifically in this work, they all contributed to my better understanding of human nature in general, especially after being recognized and discussed thoroughly within the realm of medicine and the medical field.   My medical literature journey has been one of intrigue, emotion, interest, learning, comprehension, confusion, and ultimately pure enjoyment.  I have been surrounded by a great class of friends and peers, who together, we discussed and thought about some of life’s deepest issues, but also about some very interesting, but topically lighter subjects.  I have gained a new perspective on literature, but also of the medical field, doctors, patients, their interactions, and the importance of always remembering that a patient is a person too.  I cannot say if this class has made my decision of whether or not to pursue a career in the medical field any more or less easy, but I have gained so much knowledge and appreciation for medical literature that I cannot determine if my purpose in taking this class should have been to determine my path in life, but rather, to enjoy the journey of literature. Either way, I have greatly benefitted from taking this course.  

Lee Goatley


About Lee

I am a collegian who is in the process of deciding whether or not to pursue a career in the medical field. Because of the enormity of this pending decision I am going to utilize this blog as a medium for reflection and rationalization. I will combine two of my passions, literature and science into a blog. The content of this blog will be stimulated by medical literature that has been written throughout the ages.
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One Response to My Medical Literature Experience

  1. Maureen Tuthill says:

    Whatever your path, it is clear that you will approach it thoughtfully and compassionately. I’m glad that you were able to take the class readings and discussions to such deep levels–literature can do that, and the topic of medicine always raises the stakes. I agree with you that one of the amazing things about studying medical issues in literature is finding out that human nature often seems consistent across cultures and time periods. This class was a journey for me, too–I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our discussions and our many moments of enlightenment.

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