Alone Together: Medicine and the Muse Offers Stanford Medicine Employees Healing and Reflection through Art
By Brian Smith
Organized by Medicine and the Muse, the Apart-Together COVID-19 Remembrance Project featured wooden flower petals representing lives lost to COVID-19 and a playlist for the Stanford Soundwalk, with narration by Rev. Tiffany Steinwert, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, and a playlist of music by Stanford faculty and students curated by Christopher Costanza, cellist in residence with the Stanford St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photo by Steve Fisch
The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a contradiction: a shared experience of isolation. Across the globe, virtual work and learning replaced in-person events. People didn’t know what the bottom half of their co-workers’ faces looked like behind masks. This extended to hospitals and clinics. Nurses held phones up to dying patients so families could say goodbye. Babies entered the world and then immediately after, quarantine.
Some of these experiences are not new to medicine, and topics such as burnout and desensitization have been buzzwords in medicine and medical education for decades. After all, future and current health-care providers have the unique privilege and weight of seeing people during some of the best and worst moments of their lives. When things go right, babies are delivered, tumors are removed, and life-changing treatments are given. But things go wrong too. Patients die, cancers spread, and treatments fail.
Some of us in the medical community who witness these highs and lows look for creative outlets. We need to process these experiences. With reflection comes growth and healing and sometimes the opportunity to find meaning in loss and pain. The medical humanities and arts, which are typically thought of as the intersection of the arts and medicine, provide such opportunities. For the Stanford School of Medicine, the Medical Humanities and Arts Program in the Center for Biomedical Ethics—known on campus as Medicine and the Muse—serves as the home for medical-related creative expression in the arts and humanities.
Medicine and the Muse provides a wide range of programming that spans creative writing, visual arts, the performing arts, and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, three programs and a weekly newsletter were created specifically to address the isolation, uncertainty, fear, and grief of the time by providing community, healing, and a point of connection and direction: the Stuck @ Home Concert series, the Apart-Together COVID-19 Remembrance Project, the Writing Medicine workshops, and the MedMuse 4 U Update newsletter.
The Stuck @ Home concerts began as a replacement for in-person concerts featuring Stanford physicians and health-care workers. As the pandemic progressed, the audience grew into the thousands, with all tuning in via Zoom to listen to beautiful, hopeful music as we were collectively stuck at home.
For the Stuck @ Home performance at Bing Concert Hall, Dr. Tamara Dunn sang Etta Jones’ "Save Your Love for Me" with Dr. Terrigal Burn on the piano. Photo by Steve Fisch
“[Medicine and the Muse is] the main reason I chose Stanford Medical School,” says medical student Melanie Ambler, a cellist who performed in several Stuck @ Home concerts. “It is such an incredible opportunity to be encouraged to pursue my interest in music and medicine and have the freedom to do what I love rather than what might be typical or expected.”
The concerts culminated in a socially distanced concert at Bing Concert Hall featuring seventeen of the more than one hundred Stuck @ Home performers. It was presented as a thank you to all the employees on the frontlines during the pandemic, those essential employees who were serving their communities in the most vital ways and were indeed not “stuck at home.” The enthusiasm for these concerts also led to the formation of the Stanford Medicine Chorus and the Stanford Medicine Orchestra, both of which will be performing on November 9 in Bing Concert Hall.
“Music is a universal language that goes right to the heart and gets at feelings and emotions that might be difficult to articulate,” says Jacqueline Genovese, executive director of the Medical Humanities and Arts Program. “It was an honor to provide an opportunity for so many in the Stanford Medicine and Stanford University family to share their musical gifts and create what really became a magical, healing time, particularly in such uncertainty. We are so grateful for our wonderful partnership with Stanford Live. For many of our faculty and students, performing in Bing Concert Hall was a dream come true.”
The Apart-Together COVID-19 Remembrance Project grew out of a desire to give voice to the experiences of Stanford Medicine and Stanford University employees and students during this unprecedented time in our history. The project was rooted in the idea that Stanford University itself was born of the tragic loss of Leland and Jane Stanford’s son, Leland Jr., during a pandemic. The ten-person project committee was co-led by Dr. Bryant Lin, director of the Medical Humanities and Arts Program, and Genovese. The committee included artist and Stanford lecturer in Art and Art History and Clinical Anatomy Lauren Toomer—who conceived of the idea of using painted slices of branches from Stanford trees as petals that were joined together in flowers to represent the lives lost to COVID-19—and Stanford cellist in residence with the St. Lawrence String Quartet Christopher Constanza—who curated the playlist of music by Stanford faculty and students for the Stanford Soundwalk portion of the project. More than three thousand employees and students and over one hundred departments and units participated. The project, the MedMuse 4 U Update newsletter, and the Stuck @ Home Concert series were recognized by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education with the Circle of Excellence Grand Gold, Gold, and Bronze awards, respectively.
Stanford Medicine invited artist Lauren Toomer (pictured above) to create visual elements for the Apart-Together COVID-19 Remembrance Project, which, in addition to the wooden flower petals, included a sculpture of intertwining branches stemming from three stumps. Photo by Steve Fisch
The Writing Medicine workshops are also a place of solace and community. Health-care professionals from across the country joined for free, biweekly reflective writing sessions, led primarily by author Laurel Braitman, the director of writing and storytelling for the Medicine and the Muse program. Participants have commented on how liberating and important it is to have the space to take a moment to breathe, think, and write. Medical student Jane Thomas describes the workshops as “a hearty weekend brunch for the soul,” and Stanford physician Dr. Yeuen Kim says the workshops are a way to “know that I and others I know in the audience are OK, which is invaluable to me during this time.”
One of the flagship events from Medicine and the Muse is the annual Paul Kalanithi Writing Award, named in honor of the Stanford neurosurgery resident whose posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air is a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist. Each year, the contest seeks short stories, essays, or poetry that addresses patients and providers experiencing chronic or life-limiting illness.
Another keystone of Medicine and the Muse is the annual medical humanities symposium. Medical and physician associate students, as well as other members of the wider Stanford Medicine community, meet and share creative work and then attend a keynote address by a prominent artist. The latest theme was Flames in the Night: The Joy of Storytelling, with Dr. Emily Silverman of the medical storytelling podcast The Nocturnist headlining. The Stanford Medicine website features a gallery of work from this year’s event.
Medicine and the Muse is a collaborative, welcoming community with numerous entry points. In addition to the events mentioned above, those in the medical community can bring an idea or piece of writing to the program’s StoryLab to meet with a MedMuse tutor for feedback. The tutors have storytelling expertise and include a physician, an art professional who helps patients and others write letters to loved ones, a medical student, and the program coordinator for Medicine and the Muse.
In this new world, we might feel more alone than ever before. Many people have been forced to confront illness and mortality—ours and our loved ones’—earlier than expected. Medicine and the Muse provides opportunities for those in health care to find healing in our pain and community through creativity. No longer must we face our failures and triumphs alone—in bathrooms on break, in garages after shifts, or in bed as eyes close. Through art, we send our sparks out into the darkness like stars. Perhaps together we can share in their warmth and light.
Brian Smith is a rising second-year medical student at the Stanford University School of Medicine. His narrative medicine poetry and prose have been published in academic journals such as JAMA Oncology, Academic Medicine, Anesthesiology, and the Intima as well as appearing on KQED and elsewhere. His writing has been honored by the Paul Kalanithi Writing Award and the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition. Smith is editor in chief of Anastomosis, Stanford’s graduate student medical humanities journal.