Doctor takes own second opinion to heart

Mari Sasano, Edmonton Journal
January 12, 2007

Literary prize winners are one in a million. And judging from anecdotal evidence, it's pretty hard to find a doctor these days. But to have a literary prize-winning physician, now that's rare!

This year, Dr. Vincent Lam was the winner of the Giller Prize, for his novel Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. To celebrate such a unique combination of talents, the Arts and Humanities in Health and Medicine Program at the University of Alberta, along with the Centre for Canadian Literature, is hosting a free reception, book-signing and panel discussion with the author. And, as it turns out, creativity in the medical field is not only common, it's a really good thing.

"We are bringing to medicine an arts and humanities perspective through speakers and events like this and creating an opportunity within the curriculum to study intersections in medicine and the arts and develop a community of interested scholars and practitioners," says Pamela Brett-MacLean, co-director of the the Arts and Humanities in Health and Medicine Program which launched last May.

While it makes sense that people skills are desirable in a doctor -- you want a soft touch while dressed in a paper gown! -- this program was, in fact, developed from an earlier initiative by the other co-director, Dr. Verna Yiu, that recognized students who showed a particular aptitude for compassion and caring. This program takes those basics further by encouraging a wider perspective on medical care, says Brett-MacLean.

"I think it provides a means to be more fully expressive of the human side of medicine. It gives voice to the facets that are always there, but not always communicated through factual description. We're looking at supporting the opportunity to reflect on the more intangible, to develop the ability to appreciate narrative, language and gesture."

Writing seems to be a natural expression for physicians: the program organized a writing workshop earlier in the year, attracting more than 90 people in the faculty.

"Actually, often doctors near the end of their careers, many physicians will develop other interests," she says, citing examples such as the poet William Carlos Williams, and another Canadian novelist, Dr. Kevin Patterson. To encourage the potential literary talents at the U of A, the program will also be setting up an online writing salon, as well as publishing the work of faculty, students, and residents. But even with all the artistic expression burgeoning at hospitals and clinics across Canada, we are still very impressed with Dr. Lam.

"It's a little rare to have such a young doctor! In Canada, this is a singular achievement."

© Edmonton Journal 2007