Valley News – Professor Geisel seeks to humanize medicine through art – cialisdfr
Valley News – Professor Geisel seeks to humanize medicine through art
Valley News – Professor Geisel seeks to humanize medicine through art

LEBANON — What if the American medical profession, known for its byzantine bureaucracy and grueling pace, had a mechanism to promote empathy, listening and better communication?

It is, but it comes from an unexpected source – art.

Dr. Laura Teif, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, is a molecular diagnostic and anatomical pathologist who diagnoses diseases by examining human tissue under a microscope.

She is also an artist who in recent years has focused on creating collages in which she reimagines healthcare facilities, transforming them from innocuous monoliths into spaces where our basic humanity can flourish. Some of Teif’s collages are included in the anthology Artists Remaking Medicine (Procedure Press), along with an essay she wrote.

Featuring interviews, narratives, images, and essays from health care professionals, Artists Reshaping Medicine examines the myriad ways in which the visual, musical, and literary arts have the potential to transform patient—and health care professional—experiences within a health care system that may appear isolated and indifferent.

“There are so many stories of people wanting to be seen as the people they are, both as a patient and as a healthcare worker. We need more person-centered care,” Taif said in an interview at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, where she does her clinical work.

Three of Taffe’s collages are included in the anthology. In Compassion, one hand gives a flower to another hand wearing blue medical gloves. In Personhood, a team of surgeons opens up a patient whose inner life seems to float above the operating table as a series of images (a musical score, a globe, a cat, flowers). “Community” shows a hospital background with images of doctors in white coats, children and a thriving forest superimposed on an unremarkable building.

Taffe’s collages have also been featured in group exhibitions at the AVA Gallery and the Lebanon Arts Center.

After Tafe’s mother was killed in a car accident in 2014, Tafe, who lives in Lebanon, considered how to channel her grief and depression. She writes voluminously to try to make sense of what happened. “What do I want to have in my life? Art emerged as something that had always been important to me but that I hadn’t put front and center.”

Until 2019, she collages seriously, usually at night, after work, when she is tired and more likely to release associated images and ideas. She works by hand, cutting out images from magazines (among other magazines, she has a large collection of National Geographic), pasting them with glue onto paper. “I really like the tangibility of it,” Teif said.

The arc of a medical career is so all-consuming, from medical school to residency to practice, that it’s easy to forget, Teif said, that “you have other elements of yourself that give you relief outside of your daily life and work.”

The idea for Artists Remaking Medicine came from Procedure Press publisher Emily Peters’ experiences as a patient when she nearly died in childbirth. As a writer, she told herself, she had to keep notes of what happened to her and why.

“The problems are big and complex. There are dramatic and harmful levels of spending, disparities in care, racism and burnout,” Peters said in a telephone interview. “What I’ve found is that artists are really making a significant, measurable impact on these issues. They are helping to change the culture of medicine so that people feel they can make a difference.”

Peters pointed to a Japanese sound artist who, after a traumatic hospital stay when she was scared out of battery by the beeps, bells and alarms coming from patient monitors, worked with German engineers to modulate the monitors’ tones so that they were more a bit pushy.

Hospitals, including DHMC, are incorporating the arts and humanities into their campuses and programming so that visitors, patients and staff are surrounded by a variety of visual and auditory stimuli—not just in a bland medical environment.

Using art, poetry and writing in a medical context are ways to “express feelings and connections and develop empathy. This can really be used for anyone – physicians, trainees and patients,” Teif said.

Medicine should not be divorced from the so-called softer faculties of empathy, attentive listening, and skilled communication; and the arts are a way to implement and hone those skills in a health care setting, she added.

Indeed, the study of “narrative medicine,” which originated in 2000 at Columbia University’s Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics and includes training in literary theory, philosophy, narrative ethics, and the creative arts, “increases clinicians’ ability to perceive trauma and suffering endured by patients and to help them cope with the chaos of the disease,” according to the department’s website.

Peters said publishing books like Artists Remaking Medicine is a way to stay “optimistic and continue the work of improving the system.”

One of the main reasons Teif shares her art with other medical professionals and students is that the arts and humanities were not part of her medical school experience. There were no mentors or role models to encourage her to pursue art and writing in addition to her medical studies. Teif has now been asked to become the faculty mentor for Lifelines, the Geisel School of Medicine’s annual literature and arts magazine, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Reading stories or personal memories or looking at images that have some basis in medicine “can be very humanizing and help us understand the impact our work will have on others,” said Lifelines editor-in-chief Brendan Hines, a student second year in medicine at Geisel.

Teif sees aesthetic beauty in his work as a pathologist examining slides under a microscope.

“I love the details of the cells and the minutiae of all the mechanisms at work in the human body,” she said. “I’ve also always been drawn to the stars and astronomy: from the extreme enormity to the extreme miniscule. They seem related to me.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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