English Major and Pre-Med: Reconciling Medicine and Literature through Stories

By: Stephanie Koo

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“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (Creative Commons/ Flickr)

It’s a normal day at the hospital. I, a valued member of the Emergency Department translational research team, approach a patient to enroll them in one of our studies (read: extremely socially awkward girl, wearing scrubs too big for her, bothers sick and crying kids and their sleep-deprived parents, to ask them questions about the types of food they like to eat or what they think about marijuana.)

Sometimes, the parents ask me if I’m an undergraduate student, and what I’m studying. I dutifully reply, “English and Biology,” and there’s usually a remark like “Oh, what a strange combination!” and if they’re receptive enough, I launch into a speech that basically apologizes for being an English major: that I want to be an effective communicator as a physician; that sometimes scientists lack the people skills, and I felt that physicians especially should empathize more; that I think that science needs to get out of its ivory tower and reach the public better—and what better way to do that than through writing?

This time, however, I approached a patient who is there for a mental health emergency and has been there nearing on three days. The exhausted parent is less than friendly when they exclaim, “Why the heck would you want to be an English major? How on earth does that teach you about medicine?”

I’m not really in the mood to explain myself today, and not to this parent. Today, instead of going on my spiel, I say simply, “Ma’am, I just really like writing.” And I think that’s the most truthful answer I’ve given.

I’ve tried different costumes since I’ve arrived at UConn. Feeling insecure about entering as an English major without a job in mind, and not really wanting to be a teacher, I switched into Animal Science with the intent of being a vet. But horses kinda scared me, and I was an Asian from the suburbs with no intention of running a pig farm, and I was frustrated at the lack of pet legislation and how veterinary medicine as a system was run.

I added my English major back as soon as I could and felt a rush of relief: I knew how to do this. I wasn’t looked at funny when mentioning my love for creative writing. I could write a 15-page essay the night before and present a mostly coherent argument. I could scoff about the patriarchy and racism and learn ways to address it through writing. I could read and write scholarly articles about fanfiction and video games and have it recognized as legitimate, never mind that pretty much everyone else would be thinking, “Jeez, English majors…

But science wouldn’t let me go—I had enjoyed my biology classes too much. So, as some writers do, I launched myself into nature. I always liked the outdoors. There were lots of nature writers, so it was fairly easy to imagine myself among them—Rachel Carson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopald. Who knows—maybe I could go into nature documentaries be a David Attenborough, not that I could ever have the old British man voice necessary for that job. Never mind that I couldn’t name a bird by its call to save my life.

Three months later, after a summer internship with a wildlife refuge, and scarred from head to toe by poison ivy (it somehow even got inside my shirt?), I reconsidered. I had abandoned veterinary medicine, but never really gave human medicine full thought, thinking that it was stereotypical of me to want to become a doctor—my parents never pushed me towards this career, but I was self-conscious that other people would think that my “culture” forced me into this role (not to discount fellow Asians who did grow up in families that strongly emphasized the career). But something clicked within me.

I was drawn to the stories, and they were familiar because health has been an integral part of all our lives. The stories, past and present, of women who fought for the rights to their own bodies. I was angered by the injustice of things done to vulnerable populations in the name of medicine, but also proud of writers for exposing them, like Rebecca Skloot and the story of Henrietta Lacks. I read different views on disability, arguments for and against medicalization and what “quality of life” might mean in different contexts. And stories about death and loss, especially.

There’s something poetic about the art of medicine, and how, ever since our existence began, we’ve been fighting death, knowing fully well that we are always going to lose.

I wanted to become a part of that messy system, problems and all. I want to be that researcher, the physician—to understand the scientific process— but also read and write about it. And maybe that will affect other people. And I found that, like nature writing, there were also physician-writers. Even though they were mostly men, I now saw that as a challenge.

I think that I decided to do this in a good time—I’m not going to be the only English, arts, or humanities major when I eventually get to medical school. The medical community recognizes that there is a disconnect between the public and science, especially now, and the need for more empathetic physicians. A recent article by the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote that “medical students with undergraduate degrees in the humanities perform as well as pre-meds with science backgrounds but tend to have better empathy and communication skills, and a more patient-centered outlook,” and more medical humanities-specific majors are emerging to specifically address this growing trend.

The MCAT (medical school admissions test) even was changed to include more topics such as sociology. My pre-med advisor says I “will kill the CARS (critical analysis and reading section) on the MCAT” solely based on my being an English major—not that he has ever seen any of my writing. I’m looking at medical schools with the option of learning about narrative medicine, such as the one in Columbia, which is multidisciplinary in nature, as medicine should be: it “seeks to strengthen the overarching goals of medicine, public health, and social justice, as well as the intimate, interpersonal experiences of the clinical encounter.”

Double majoring isn’t easy. I can’t write my novel when I have a biochem exam to study for, and science doesn’t come as naturally to me as English does. But seeing science through the context of medicine, and medicine through the context of stories and a larger human experience, helps explore connections past the boxes we sort ourselves into.

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