I grew up as a ballerina. Ballet was my life, my identity. When I discovered a passion for medicine, many people questioned how I could reconcile dual interests in both ballet and medicine- such seemingly different disciplines. However, since entering the field of medicine, I have developed a fondness for the differences between these two worlds, while also continually being struck by the parallels I find every day between the two.
Still enamored by both ballet and medicine, I have come to appreciate even more the opportunities I have had both in tutus and in scrubs, and further come to relish even more so the similarities I find across both. It seemed a natural step for me to join the Medical Humanities Path of Excellence at the University of Michigan Medical School, one of several interest-based pathways students have the opportunity to join. In the Medical Humanities Path of Excellence, I’ve connected with likeminded classmates and faculty also interested in the arts and the intersection of the humanities and medical sciences. For my Capstone for Impact, I wanted to create a lasting art exhibit that would allow me to share my experience and connect with others who may have similar experiences blending their worlds and passions across disciplines.
For my project, I dove into a new form of art for me – photography! This exhibit depicts my journey integrating my love for ballet and medicine. Through the process of staging and capturing these images, I came to realize even more similarities between dance and medicine than I had before. Trying to integrate such seemingly different objects and imagery, I was struck by both the tension and dichotomy as well as the harmony and blending of the two worlds. When ideas for certain images came to mind, I was surprised each time by how seamlessly the scenes came together. My two worlds blended together even more smoothly than I ever imagined, something I have experienced in my life over the past few years as well as through the journey of taking these photos.
The collection begins with still life images, consisting of objects typically associated with medicine strewn with subjects classically associated with ballet and the arts, creating a playful tension between the two while also showing how seamlessly they can appear to integrate. These first few images are meant to be subtle. The photos become increasingly more forward in demonstrating the melding of ballet and medicine as the collection progresses. Furthermore, the editing and lighting in addition to the subjects become more dramatic in each subsequent photo. This parallels my own feelings toward reconciling my passions for art and medicine. Initially, I tried to keep my worlds separate and not allude to one or the other my dual allegiances. However, as is demonstrated through the images, over time I have become bolder in demonstrating my passions for both dance and medicine, and finding ways to ensure both remain a part of my life.
This exhibit is meant to evoke the feeling behind my personal transition from one career to the next, from ballerina to doctor. My hope is that this collection will inspire others to give thought to ways in which seemingly dichotomous aspects of their lives may be more similar or harmonious than they once thought, and to find beauty in the contrast. I had a blast creating this project and was delighted by how well received it was by my peers and mentors. This is just one example of the incredibly unique opportunities allotted to University of Michigan med students.
Here is my photo collection – I hope you enjoy!
1. Tutus and S2’s
Early in medical school, our white coats and stethoscopes feel like a costume we don. These items feel like props from a child’s game of dress-up when we first put them on, but over time they become as much a part of us as a sign of our occupation. This photograph shows a stethoscope hanging amidst a wardrobe of ballet tutus and costumes. A tutu transforms the ballerina into a character for the audience and into a new version of herself for the performance. Similarly, the stethoscope is itself a symbol of medicine that transforms us from students into doctors.
Putting on stage makeup and doing one’s hair becomes somewhat of a pre-show ritual for dancers. While execution of the choreography takes precedence for the audience, the hair and makeup are crucial to the performances well and also take time and dedication to perfect. Medical students spend countless hours training in physical exam maneuvers to prepare for seeing patients. While the reflex hammer may be an infrequently used tool amidst our equipment, it represents the tireless hours of preparation that go into evaluating, diagnosing, and treating each patient just as the makeup indicates the disciplined ritual of dancers preparing for each show with care.
3. E sharp
Music is an integral part of dance; it drives the movement and emotion of choreography. Here an eye chart is casually placed next to sheet music, accompanied by a tuning fork. This image is meant to evoke the playful dichotomy of the science of medicine next to the art of music, tied together by the tuning fork, which is used in both.
4. Simple. Interrupted.
This photograph shows a surgical needle driver and sutures being used to stitch a ballet shoe. This is meant to show a direct integration of the passion and skills of medicine and ballet complementing each other.
5. Breaking Scrub
The mayo tray with its surgical instruments is the surgeon’s toolbox. A ballerina’s pointe shoes are the primary tool she uses in her craft. This photograph displays a pair of pointe shoes among medical instruments and supplies on a surgical tray, exemplifying the contrast of the satin shoes amongst the cold metal instruments. While medicine, and surgery in particular, are often focused on as a hard science, they too are an art as physicians individually find solutions to the endless novel problems that patients present.
6. On Call
Here a dancer stands en pointe in a white coat, holding a stethoscope at her side. This image is meant to evoke a sense of both the tension and reconciliation of these two seemingly opposite worlds colliding.
7. Tipping Pointe
This final image is meant to be playful and thought provoking. I would like to leave this final image open to interpretation by each viewer. Perhaps one sees a dancer flippantly disregarding a stethoscope, abandoning science for art; perhaps one sees a physician skillfully balancing the stethoscope as well as her dual passions. To me, this image depicts the balancing act that we all undergo as we dedicate our lives to medicine and helping others, while also trying to remain well-rounded and continue to pursue our other passions, whatever they may be, that make us who we are.
Victoria Stoffers is a 4th-year medical student going into internal medicine. In her free time you can find her spending time by the Huron river near the medical school or practicing for Biorhythms, the biannual medical student dance show!
Before even starting medical school, I worried about burn-out and that I would not live up to the type of physician I aspired to be. In an effort to preserve my compassion, I dove into narrative medicine. I carved out time to learn more than people’s maladies by engaging with their stories. I created a list of twenty books to read in the year before I matriculated medical school. From The Empathy Exams to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I read for at least an hour each day on my commute to work. During our core clerkships, when I had little time to dedicate to reading, I read patient blogs before going to bed. I followed two blogs in particular, one from Brooke Vittimberga and the other from Julie Yip-Williams. These stories helped me break out of the mindset of constant evaluation as a medical student and gave me perspective, enabling me to become an empathetic, caring human again. It felt (and still feels) urgent to connect to the humanism of medicine.
When it came time to choose a Capstone for Impact project, I knew I wanted to focus on the medical humanities, and I had a book in mind. Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life by Mallory Smith is a posthumously published memoir of Mallory’s life battling cystic fibrosis. I was lucky enough to know Mallory during our years in college together. After reading her book, I grew to better understand the life of Mallory both as a friend and as a patient with a deep and intimate knowledge of the other side of medicine. Mallory writes about her brave battle with cystic fibrosis but refuses to be defined by the disease. Her prose gives a blueprint for building a fulfilling life while living with a chronic illness, addressing issues around disclosure of an often invisible illness, pain management in light of the opioid epidemic, the power of caregivers on her quality of life, insurance obstacles, mental health, body image, and end-of-life choices. I knew that Mallory’s legacy was a significant contribution to the medical community and to the medical humanities, and I was eager to share her story with our community.
Through the Capstone for Impact funding, we were able to supply 150 copies of Salt in My Soul to interested medical students of all classes and to host the author’s mother, Diane Shader Smith, for two book talks at the medical school, co-sponsored by M-Home Reads and our chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society. We had the unique opportunity to hear the perspective of her family, who served as her caregivers for much of her life. As doctors, we engage in just one part of the care that people with chronic diseases receive. Mallory’s book and family opened up opportunities to understand a fuller picture of life with cystic fibrosis. The talk took place during the “Transition to the Clerkships (TTC),” a multiweek course during which second-year medical students prepare to enter the clinical space. Despite the new obstacle of COVID, the book talks were a success, and wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy of Jen Imsande, PhD, Dr. Barnosky and Kendra Lutes.
As I reflect on this event, the culmination of more than a year of planning, I’m reminded of how important it is to center the patient experience in our practice of medicine. Literature is one of my avenues for reconnecting to medical humanism. I am not alone in the venture. The most rewarding part of the Capstone for Impact project was witnessing how students who are about to enter the clinical environment sincerely engaged with the material. Narrative medicine is one way that patients like Mallory can make their impact on generations of medical practitioners. It is up to us to honor their legacy by reading their stories.
Now, as I prepare to start residency next year, I’m crafting a new list – taking any and all book recommendations!
Amy is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her passions include health equity, community-based research, and global health. In her spare time, you’ll find her stocking up at the farmer’s market or on a run in one of Ann Arbor’s beautiful parks.
Before you skip over this post because of the previous sentence, I want you to think about something that fascinated you far more than you thought it would. That’s what I think poetry is for most people: that interesting thing that they never knew existed. I truly, maybe a little naively, believe that those who don’t like poetry just haven’t been exposed to the poems that they would like. And there’s a lot of poetry out there, far more than what the volumes on that one shelf at your nearest major book retailer might suggest. (I had originally titled this post “The poetry section at major bookstores makes me really sad,” but then I realized that THAT was one way to make sure no one reads this post!)
I recently finished Step 2. I’m officially an M4 now. Like the characters in the title short story I recently read from Anthony Doerr’s amazing 2002 collection The Shell Collector, who are bitten and rendered briefly comatose by a venomous sea snail, I’m in shock. I took Step 2 on Monday, and for the past three days, all I’ve done is read (I’m on my vacation month). They say that there are two types of people: those who read to remember, and those who read to forget. What about those who read to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives? In which camp do the nuances of that desire fall?
In truth, I know what my next four years will look like. I am ecstatic to have found, through my M3 year, the medical field that I will go into. I also know that I will be writing poetry. And here is where a less stubborn version of myself might throw up her hands and say, “This- this is not happening” — “This” meaning a career path that lets me combine my love of medicine and poetry into something that (can I say this without sounding completely delusional) could be helpful to both fields. I can’t say that it’s been easy so far– being a medical student and a writer. “I’m a poet” is not something that I volunteer on the wards, mostly because that’s like randomly telling people that you love kayaking or have a fondness for turtles in the middle of a conversation about your career ambitions. Because, despite the successful integration of creative pursuits and medical careers by physician-writers such as Atul Gawande, Amit Majudar, C. Dale Young, Rafael Campo, and so many, many more, creative writing is still seen as being separate from medicine, as evidenced by the furrowed brows and blank stares I’ve received on clerkships in response to the phrase “I write poetry” (sometimes also to the phrase, “I like to write,” at which point I’m like, This…is going to be a long two weeks). When I’m feeling adventurous, I will tell attendings or residents that I write poetry, but for the most part, I don’t bring it up unless asked about hobbies or interests outside of medicine (and instead use my energy to plan events that integrate medicine and the arts, like this one with the poet and internist Rafael Campo back in March: http://www.literatibookstore.com/event/site-humanism-and-ethics-night) Small but gradual change!
What this gap between medicine and the arts boils down to, for me, is an awareness gap. Just as you might hypothetically think that all the poetry in the world is of one homogeneous note if you only consider the poems in your high school literature textbook (was going to write, “the poetry section at the major book store,” but then realized that probably NO ONE besides writers look at, and cry over, that section), so might physicians, when it comes to possibilities within a medical career. What does this mean for me, an M4? As I go through this year, I hope to continue to work with the Medicine and the Arts Program to plan events that bring physicians and medical students together with writers. I’ll work on my IMPACT project, a collection of poems about dementia (more about that in a later post). I’ll mentor some of my peers within the Medical Humanities Path of Excellence, for which I’m planning a lesson that involves reflection and writing. I’ll continue to learn, and think, and write. It’s unfamiliar territory for most, but that’s what makes it exciting–at least, definitely, to me!
Ting Gou is an M4. Her first collection of poems, The Other House, is forthcoming in the Delphi Poetry Series from Blue Lyra Press this November. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and can be found in various literary and medical journals.
Ting Gou is a fourth-year M.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Medical School, interested in psychiatry. Her first collection of poems, The Other House, is forthcoming this November from Blue Lyra Press. As a student in the IMPACT pilot program, she is working on her second poetry collection, inspired by patients with memory loss. When she is not seeing patients, she is either writing/reading/editing poetry or attending one of the many literary events in Ann Arbor. Connect with her on Twitter @tinggou.