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Humanism through Narratives

A History of the Present Illness. Aronson, Louise. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013.


Reviewed by Jennifer Plant

What is the book about?
Written by a geriatrician at the University of California San Francisco, this book is a collection of 16 short stories describing the experiences of a variety of individuals with health and illness. “An American Problem” is the story of a Hmong girl seeking medical care for nighttime enuresis, a symptom of stressors for her and her immigrant family. “Vital Signs Stable” is the story of an elderly woman who breaks her hip and of her family’s and physician’s struggles with her declining health. “Becoming a Doctor” chronicles the formative experiences of a student during her four years of medical school, highlighting the intended and unintended effects of her training.

How is this book related to humanism in medicine?
Aronson’s stories are told from a variety of points of view: the patient, the family, and the physician. Perspective taking, the act of viewing a situation from another’s point of view, is central to the “habit of humanism” as outlined by Miller and Schmidt. Aronson gives us insight into many unique perspectives and experiences in medicine. She also, by occasionally excluding key characters points of views, pushes us to determine for ourselves what those perspectives may be.

How can we use this book to teach about humanism?
This book could be used in a variety of ways as an educational tool to promote humanism. Example of activities for students include:

  • Write a one-page narrative from the perspective of the elderly woman in “Vital Signs Stable” since her point of view is missing from the story.
  • Read and reflect on “Becoming a Doctor” both at the beginning and end of medical school training to examine the parallels between their experiences and those of the student in the story.

Editor’s note: This book reminds us of the wealth of great materials that can be incorporated into our teaching - thank you, Jennifer, for finding this and sharing it with COMSEP! (SLB).

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