'Fictions of the Body' helps students see the humanity in health, medicine

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Dec. 5, 2016

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Students in Emory's Fictions of the Body course visited the museum at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss how public health concerns are presented and curated. Emory Photo/Video

New Emory College students arrive on campus every year with bright announcements of careers in health and medicine.

With the university's strengths in health care and science, not to mention its perch adjacent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such declarations are almost expected.

But Vincent Bruyere, an assistant professor of French and comparative literature, saw something missing in the system: humanities courses that took the creativity of those disciplines and applied them to medical goals.

Enter “Fictions of the Body,” an upper-level French class cross-listed with Human Health that applies different perspectives on illness, disease and even how the human body is seen during medical treatment.

“A fiction is not a falsehood but a story,” Bruyere says of his course, offered this semester. “There is a natural audience at Emory to look at the stories of people, not just patients, to have a broader view of science and health care.”

Medical humanities, or health humanities as they are often referred, is a growing endeavor in higher education. Emory is set apart by its renowned Disability Studies Initiative, drawing on the existing interdisciplinary program to show the relevance of literature, philosophy and ethical decision making in the pursuit of medical education.

Bruyere’s class, for instance, visited the CDC Museum to discuss how public health concerns are curated. They also attended a lecture by Christina Crosby, who offers an unflinching account of her pain after being paralyzed in a bicycle accident and the toll it took on her body, her family and her work as an English professor.

“This may be one of the only classes where they will have exposure to these kinds of things and understand how the experience of medical care affects the community,” Bruyere says.

Understanding patients' perspectives

Campus conversations about how health care could be affected by more than a scientific understanding of disease reached Lamar Greene, a sophomore majoring in human health.

In the course, Greene studied HIV rates in Africa and knew that one issue to address was the stigma associated with the disease. But it was telling the stories of the many patients who had contracted the virus, despite having only one sexual partner, that helped drive home how anyone could be at risk for the disease.

He worked this summer in the Office of Health Promotion’s PrEP clinic, researching how to better reach at-risk students with the medicine that can help prevent HIV infection. Further study of the issues of stigma and pain of disease, he believes, have given him a better understanding of the need for awareness of the patient’s perspective.

“Biological science assumes the diagnosis has all the answers,” Greene says. “It’s a needed perspective to take in the patient’s experience to provide for better outcomes for them.”

A broader view of the medical model thrills Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an English professor, bioethicist and co-director of the Disability Studies Initiative.

The DSI encourages various disciplines to challenge the model that views disability only as a pathological condition to be addressed with treatment.

Bruyere’s course takes it a step further, she says, by analyzing the relationship between bodies and their environment.

“Taking scientific understanding and researching it in the context of the built world is an emerging, great interest,” she says. “The idea is simply that we are stronger and wiser if we know one another’s perspective and knowledge. We are working to make better practitioners of care.”