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Superheroes vs. Healers

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Dr. Rachel Remen teaches The Healer's Art course.

By Amy Steinberg
Contributing Writer

Lately, I’ve been surrounded by talk of superheroes. In the same way that learning a new word makes you hypersensitive to its sounds, I’m convinced that everybody around me is indicating their acquisition — or loss — of superhuman powers. 

It started a few weeks ago.  As part of the MS1 curriculum, each student is expected to interview a hospitalized patient in front of his or her peers.  The exercise is terrifying, to say the least, but a recent trip to the wards launched our group into the captivating world of an ex-law-enforcement agent fully equipped with a handle-bar mustache and a gregarious belly laugh. 

As a true crime-fighter, his superhero narrative was nearly complete, but with one small hitch: He was sick.  Very, very sick.  A mere plot twist in any regular superhero series was a brutal jolt back into the reality of blue, stained hospital curtains and runny hand sanitizer.  He was scared and alone and human, looking for connection in us, other non-superhumans.

I then began noticing other things: a discussion I overheard on the molecular feasibility of Spiderman’s genesis, a joking remark about disguising ignorance with a white-coat-wearing alter ego, a preceptor dubbed the “Superman of Hearts.”

You get the idea.

In any case, it has made me start to reflect on this construct in medicine, perhaps because a part of me came to medical school thinking it would be a type of superhero academy.  Not that I wanted to rise to fame and status with a sparkling insignia, but more because I wanted the manual to some magic bag of tools for helping people to feel better. 

And, in a lot of ways, it hasn’t been far off:  I’ve learned mechanisms behind so-called miracle drugs, I’ve begun the tedious auditory training to distinguish heart sounds, and I’ve learned to say, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Walking out of the room after that interview, however, made me realize that maybe this isn’t such a good thing.  One of the reasons we love superheroes is because we admire courage. 

This is, of course, the ultimate paradox: true courage requires the possibility for devastating loss, for utter vulnerability, something that superheroes never truly have.  We admire them for both their humanity and bravery, yet they don’t suffer the necessary fear or pain to warrant those supreme descriptors. 

What we as humans experience every day, conversely, is scary, messy, and unimaginably painful — the honest prerequisites for courage and humanity. 

The man we interviewed epitomized this definition of brave, and he deserved something more than, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”  He needed a counterpoint to his vulnerability, some nod to human camaraderie in the face of sickness and fear. 

But when I tried to think of a way to acknowledge this terrifying loneliness or to say that we struggle together, I quickly realized that I don’t know how.  Perhaps even scarier, I’ve started to fill this void of not-knowing with automated responses and generic phrases. 

So, where is the class that teaches us to be better than superheroes, to be human? Enter The Healer’s Art.

The Healer’s Art course began at UCSF in 1991 as a way to help first-year students find and maintain meaning throughout their professional endeavors.  Dr. Rachel Remen, Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, created the course and has offered it at UCSF for the past 23 years.

In that time, the course has expanded to over 70 medical schools, receiving widespread acclaim and media attention.  The class allows students to engage in small-group reflections and discussions addressing the following topics: “Retaining Your Wholeness,” “Sharing Grief and Honoring Loss,” “Allowing Awe in Medicine” and “Service as a Way of Life.” 

On January 9 from noon to 1 p.m. in N-217, Dr. Remen will give an introductory lecture titled “The Art of Medicine: Remembering That Who You Are Is as Important as What You Know.” The lecture is an opportunity to learn more about The Healer’s Art and is open to the public.  Lunch will be provided.

The Healer’s Art elective is being offered this winter (FCM 171.01) for 1.5 units, and will meet from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on the following Wednesdays: January 15 and 29 and February 5, 12 and 26. For more information, contact: amy.steinberg@ucsf.edu.

Amy Steinberg is a first-year medical student.

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