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Look beyond the blades of grass

Please allow me to get extra nerdy for a second. I discovered that photography was a very powerful way to train medical students. I realized this quite by accident when I set up a photography class for incoming freshmen. A lot of the things that I had taken for granted, I found were very difficult for the students to grasp. They did not know how to look at the world in a photographic way. When they were faced with the challenge of expressing themselves visually, many of them froze. I didn’t know if it was fear or self-doubt that prevented them from moving forward, but I could see their anguish. I asked them what was wrong, and they told me, “There’s nothing to photograph. The campus is boring.” With all the luscious green leaves about and all the life that existed within, I couldn't understand how they couldn't see there was plenty to photograph. I watched the students move around the campus hunting aimlessly for images. I saw the life draining from them little by little as they were unable to see what I could see. That's when I realize how powerful this class could be.

In order to be a great medical doctor, it's important for you to be able to connect the dots of knowledge. You have to understand how all things you've learned up to that point fit within the context of the problem that you're facing and how to use that knowledge to solve it. Just like photography, the problem isn't always evident. Sometimes it requires you to change your perspective in order to see things in a different way. If you give up before you have even struggled through the problem, then it could be a death for a patient. In some ways, it’s also a death for a photograph.

With photography. students could learn Arthur Costa’s 16 habits of mind. I have already published an academic paper about this. If we go in order, the 16 habits of mind are as follows: persisting, managing impulsivity, listening to others with understanding and empathy, thinking flexibly, thinking about thinking (metacognition), striving for accuracy, questioning and posing problems, applying past knowledge to new situations, thinking and communicating with clarity, gathering data through all senses, creating, responding with wonderment and awe, taking reasonable risks, finding humor, thinking interdependently, and learning continuously. The discipline of photography allows students to be able to practice all 16 of these habits of mind. There should probably be 17 because photography also teaches how to change one's perspective in order to gain a new understanding. Costa believed that these habits of mind were essential for improving one’s problem solving skills.

So, every year students sign up for the photography class believing that it will be the easiest class of the semester. They think all they have to do is push a button. On the very first day of class before I teach them anything about what the buttons do. my first question is always the same, what story do you want to tell? My personal approach to photography comes from my training in photojournalism. My professor always asked me the same question, “What do you want to say in this photo.” Sometimes the message isn't so clear, especially when you're dealing with abstract images and ideas. However, every photo session should begin with something that the photographer wants to show or say.

In the case of medicine, the question become’s “What does the patient want to say and what is the best way to respond to the patient’s situation?” These two concepts are slightly different but very similar. In answering the needs of the patient, a great medical doctor must use past knowledge and experience in order to create an overall picture of treatment. Sometimes the way forward is not so obvious. The doctor may have to get low to the ground or high above. He or she may have to step away or move in closer to the problem. If this way of thinking can become habit, then it's easier for the young medical doctor to incorporate these habits into daily practice. Photography class in medical school is about developing these habits of mind so the habits get built into the muscle memory of the physician.

It's hard to imagine that a few months ago the Dean told us that there was a meeting to discuss whether or not to eliminate liberal arts from medical school. There are some physicians who believe that learning liberal arts is not necessary. Those doctors see their patients as machines that need to be fixed. While the body is a living machine, the patient most certainly is not . He or she is a human being and in order to treat human beings, one must have a good grasp of humanity. A good doctor must be able to show empathy and express his or her ideas. A good doctor must be able to see the world in wonderment and awe and be able to share that with a patient, who in illness may not be able to see it so clearly. A good physician builds communication and rapport with their patient so that the patient is not afraid to tell their story. Above all. a good doctor doctor is persistent, even when the answer isn't so obvious. Liberal arts courses teach students how to think, how to solve problems, how to see the world beyond steps and procedures, how to understand themselves, and how to understand others. A medical university that gets rid of liberal arts is dooming their students to becoming robots that take a very mechanical approach to medicine. Ultimately the patient suffers.

These are the ideas that were going through my head today when I was looking for a picture to post. I came across these images I took on campus as an example to show students that if they look closely, there's a lot going on beyond the blades of grass.


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