AURORA | The parallels between medicine and literature are deep, albeit a little hard to quantify.
The approach that Therese Jones, associate professor and director of the University of Colorado Denver’s Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program, prefers is the idea that both medicine and humanities deal with base understanding of the human condition.
“Reading and thinking about stories certainly fosters compassion, it certainly inculcates a kind of awareness of the complexity of the human condition,” Jones said.
For that reason more than two decades ago Jones — who goes by Tess — began understanding the role humanities played in the application and instruction of medicine.
Jones moved to Boulder in 1982 to pursue graduate degrees in English after finishing college with a degree in theaters. Jones completed her graduate work in 1990 with a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English, emphasizing in contemporary American theater and gender.
In 1991, Jones noticed an article in the “New England Journal of Medicine,” at her brother’s home, who is an anesthesiologist.
“It was one of the first articles on — we didn’t know what to call it then — but we’ll go ahead and say it was AIDS,” she said.
The cultural wake that disease created was fascinating, she said.
“I was fascinated by how important the American stage was in terms of educating people about this new disease,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, she said, she began teaching a class about AIDS and the American theater and looking at the epidemic through a medical perspective.
“At that time, the materials were proliferating as fast as the disease itself,” she said.
In 1994, Jones began a 3-year postdoctoral research at Northeastern Ohio Universities College Fellowship of Medicine. In 1994 she published a collection of plays and materials related to the cultural spread of the disease.
“That was really my movement into medical education,” she said. “I didn’t even take biology in college.”
Since she began, Jones said her mission has changed in her field of humanities in medicine.
“There was an awareness, or a hope, that the humanities would serve as a corrective to the dehumanizing technology that was developing,” she said. “There was this missionary zeal to bring humanities in as an antidote. I don’t believe that … I had any kind of arrogance that I was coming in to make people more humane.
“A lot of our work has been focused on introducing critical and intellectual tools for students. Health care and medicine are story-based — medicine is really a narrative,” she said.
Jones uses the example of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as an example of medicine in a narrative context.
The main character is a man losing his mind, she said. There are very real parallels between an aging King Lear and his daughters, and the onset of dementia and age-related illnesses.
“By teaching students to listen more intently, to pick up signals to understand things from a patient point of view — imagery, coded language, the way a story is told — you become a better provider,” she said.
Jones admits it may seem strange for some to consider Shakespeare as a prompt for better bedside manner.
“Even my brother said, ‘You’re going where? You’re going into a medical school?’” she said. “I think we were all a little bit nervous about that. Because how in the world do you measure that? Does reading Shakespeare make you a better person? I would say yes, but there’s no way I can quantify that.
“But I think my purpose is to introduce concepts. We’re making meaning together.”