Hui Xu, an associate professor at China Medical University of Shenyang, was once a visiting scholar of UNC’s Health Humanities department. Though she had already obtained a Master’s degree in British and American Literature from Northeastern University of China, Xu spent over a year auditing classes, shadowing UNC professors, and studying the health humanities, and she believes her time at UNC significantly enhanced her teaching.
Xu’s class, The English Course of Contemporary Medicine – Humanities in Medicine, is a compulsory course for PhD and MD students at China Medical University. Unlike the United States system, Chinese students attain a medical bachelor degree out of high school over five years, and then continue for another three years for a Master’s degree. Finally, the doctorate medical degree is obtained at a Medical University over the course of another three to five years, and these are the students that Xu teaches.
In the more traditional practices of early China, the doctor was closely tied to the community through familial bonds and friendship. Even ancient philosophers and doctors, according to Xu, wrote literature on the priority of human connection over a medical diagnosis, emphasizing the doctor’s compassion and community involvement. Medical techniques often required physical touch and dialogue like the infamous pulse diagnosis. However, with the advancements of medical technology and treatments, the Chinese medical system has become more Westernized, and the role of the physician has shifted to an objective, efficient clinician. Similar to American scholars, the Chinese government has invested in the medical humanities as a possible solution to the rising tension between doctors and patients. Xu equips her students with the tools needed to succeed in a world of sterile, cold biomedicine while she cultivates an understanding of narrative medicine and human connection through literature.
Under the guidance of many UNC professors, like Dr. Jane Thrailkill, Xu took classes like ENGL 61H: Doctor Patient Relationship, ENGL 268H: Medicine, Literature, and Culture, and ENGL 264: Healing in Literature and Ethnography. In ENGL 695: Health Humanities Intensive Research Practices, she participated in the HHIVE Falls Narrative Study, analyzing written narratives of fall or near-fall incidents to capture this unique lived experience. In collaborating with other health humanities students, Xu broadened her academic horizons beyond the postmodern literature she loves and devoured book after book in the medical humanities, and these experiences have directly related to her classroom.
The most interesting aspect of her course is that there is no Mandarin permitted. All of Xu’s materials and assignments are completed by students in English with only the occasional translation to ensure comprehension. This holds practical values in the lives of these medical students, as many biomedical articles are written in English; however, Xu also emphasized the importance of the language in the study of medical humanities. “The Chinese are not leading the world in this field,” she stated, “This leaves much to learn for my students, and many of the best materials come from Europe and the United States.” For example, the self-renewal writings of John W. Gardner, who was the US Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Johnson, are used to demonstrate the utility of analogies in explaining medical concepts and communicating with patients.
Xu goes beyond the average classroom and challenges her students to write their own analogy of a medical concept, inspired by a poetry assignment in Dr. Thrailkill’s class at UNC. While UNC students wrote 50 word poems to describe a chosen disease or medical situation, Xu’s students develop analogies that they can directly apply to their other clinical classes. They also participate in workshops of Xu’s design, brainstorming ways to heal the rift between doctors and patients as they read Rita Charon’s Honoring the Stories of Illness.
Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor is assigned to introduce the concepts of the placebo effect and health psychology, and all of these lessons originated from UNC’s curriculum and Xu’s experience.
More than just class material, UNC’s philosophy of the medical humanities is also demonstrated in the making of this class. Good doctors, under this ideology, must do more than diagnose and prescribe; they must actively engage in the stories of their patients. Good doctors use human compassion combined with biomedical knowledge to heal, and this is a more complex phenomenon than what can be discovered in a cadaver lab or physiology textbook. By requiring this as a facet of medical education, China Medical University mirrors the core sentiments of Xu and UNC’s health humanities scholars, and this is what Xu hopes students take away from her class, if nothing else. “Medicine is a unique because the driving idea at the center is not machines”, Xu proclaims, “It’s humans.”
About the Author:
Michala Patterson is a junior undergraduate at UNC. She plans to major in Global Studies: Health in Latin America and Biology and is completing minors in Spanish, Chemistry, and Medicine, Literature & Culture. In her aspiration to be a future physician, Michala hopes to combat local and global health disparities with an interdisciplinary approach, especially in the field of women’s health and pediatrics.