On a frigid Chicago winter day in 2015, I gathered with a group of 12 second-year medical students around the Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which is prominently displayed in one of the main exhibition halls at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was attending a humanities course offered through my medical school titled The Seeing Eye, which aimed to teach young doctors mindfulness and observational skills through art appreciation. On those precious afternoons away from preclinical studies, I eagerly exchanged my stethoscope for a magnifying glass and wandered the museum with my friends, studying stroke patterns, colors, shades, and hues that leapt from famous paintings and statues. It was a wonderful time, and certainly one of my most memorable, if not most formative, experiences during medical school.
Five years later, as a CA-2 at Stanford, I decided to enter the California Society of Anesthesiologists History of Anesthesia contest. History has always been a source of fascination and inspiration for me, and it was not lost on me that our everyday tools and techniques of the trade – e.g., Miller/Macintosh blades, Seldinger technique, Apgar scores, Larson maneuver, Mallampati scores, etc. – were eponymous testaments to the pioneers of our field. While the demands of residency certainly made writing an extracurricular essay more challenging, I found time to reflect and write over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays (which I was fortunate to spend outside of the hospital!). After several hours of staring at a blank Word document and skimming through the UCSF Arthur E. Guedel archives, I ultimately decided to write an essay about Dr. David Gaba at Stanford, which I titled “Rethinking ‘Normal Accidents’ in Anesthesia: How Dr. David Gaba Translated Crisis Management Principles from Aviation to Anesthesiology.” Although I had taken a simulation course taught by Dr. Gaba earlier that year, I had no idea that Dr. Gaba had pioneered the scientific field of OR crisis management until I began the background research for my essay. I loved reviewing old interviews and articles featuring Dr. Gaba from the 1980s and 1990s and linking his early interests in space flight aviation to his later work in simulation and crisis management. Gratefully, I won the contest that year with my entry, and received the opportunity to highlight Dr. Gaba's lifetime contributions to anesthesiology for a broader CSA audience.
I am reminded of the famous quote attributed to Hippocrates – “where the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.” As I come to the end of my medical training, I would add my take on it: a love of the humanities is foundational to the love of medicine, the latter of which seems to be in crisis, as evidenced by surveys of physician burnout. The intense day-to-day productivity demands on physicians can produce feelings of dehumanization, making it all too easy to neglect the humanity in our patients, and in ourselves. There is no easy solution to this problem. However, just as how contemplating Seurat's magnum opus taught me the dual values of careful observation and mindfulness, the humanities can offer ways to better understand who we are as humans. I believe the first step to any sustainable solution will involve fostering a greater respect for the humanity inherent in all of us.