Finding the roots of compassion

Emory students in Italy

Carlo Levi was a doctor, but he was hardly a willing participant in the practice of medicine.

In the mid-1930s, Levi was sentenced for participating in anti-fascist political activism in Italy. Instead of serving time in prison, Levi was forced to doctor to the peasants who lived in and around the caves in Matera, a small town in the arch of the Italian boot. In time, Levi's resentment eased, and he came to share in their joys and sorrows of everyday life.

What lessons does Levi's experience have for today¿s aspiring doctors? Sitting in a cave in Matera this past June, twenty-some Emory undergraduate students were discussing how Levi's experiences changed him. Levi's book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his experiences in Matera, is just one of a handful of readings about medicine and compassion that the students read in this course. The Medicine and Compassion course, part of Emory's Italian studies abroad program, was started seven years ago by Emory internist Ruth Parker, who felt that many pre-med students were so focused on their science studies that they neglected to consider the art of healing.

"The goal is that we want students to define compassion for themselves as it relates to healing," Parker says. "In the course, we spend a lot of time talking about the practice of medicine without compassion. We are so drawn to the science and technology, but we have to couple that with values that can guide ethical decision-making, which will help us figure out what to do in unexpected situations, like in rising floodwaters in a post-Katrina hospital. What do you do when the technology can't be supportive?"

Readings and discussions go from ancient to modern times: the medieval plague, Nazi doctors, the Tuskegee experiments, capital punishment, pediatric oncology, and malaria. In addition to class discussions, students journal and visit places that relate to the readings, such as a museum on medieval torture and one of the first anatomical theaters in western Europe.

Ruth Parker

Ruth Parker developed a course on medicine and compassion

CDC epidemiologist Paul Cantey 98M 01MR 03MPH helps teach the course, which is open to all undergraduates, regardless of their major. "A lot of students see things as black and white¿there's a right answer, there's a wrong answer," he says. "On a biochemistry test that's true, but when you are dealing with human beings, there's a lot of gray. This is the course where we look at the gray."

Arian Hatefi 05C 11M says the course helped him appreciate the important distinction between physician and scientist. "That distinction is being blurred, and this course helped me understand that even when the limits of science have been reached, it is the physician who can still do more by sharing in the experience of suffering," he says.

Parker hopes that prospective doctors will think back to the course as they practice in the years to come.

"Unfortunately I don't think that many of us who are health care providers would say that the practice of medicine is characterized by habitual compassion," she says. "I think it's wonderful to say, 'But what if it were?'"

Watch a documentary on the medicine and compassion course on YouTube or ITunesU.

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Emory Medicine Winter 2011