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Seeing Humanity

In health-focused fields, an appreciation for art and culture, language and literature connects professionals to their patients—and one another

Eight years later, Dan Hodson ’09 can still hear the wailing: “A woppii kam. A woppii kam!”

Hodson hasn’t retained many words from Fulacounda, the dialect spoken in the district of southern Senegal where he volunteered with the Peace Corps from 2011 to 2015—but he will always remember this phrase, which translates to “You threw me away.” Crumbling with grief, a woman cried it over and over as she watched a young girl die at a health post during the region’s rainy season, when more than 80 percent of malaria cases occur.

This was the first time, but certainly not the last, that Hodson saw death close up. During his service in West Africa, the scourge of malaria dominated his attention. He coordinated mosquito net distributions, created malaria education programs, trained community care providers, and lobbied politicians for malaria rapid diagnostic tests and first-line antimalarials. He relied on his host family, fellow volunteers, and local health workers for support and collaboration at every step. Hodson, who earned a bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in theater, credits his foundation in the humanities with helping him build strong connections to these diverse individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Enrollment in academic humanities programs has waned as an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions has swept the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of undergraduate humanities degrees granted in 2015, the last year for which data is available, had dropped nearly 10 percent from three years prior. But as this trend has persisted, so have humanities champions who maintain that exploring literature, history, philosophy, languages, religion, music, and the arts fosters invaluable traits such as a plasticity of mind, an ability to view the world from different perspectives, and an understanding of human endeavors over time. The resulting skill set particularly benefits those pursuing careers in health care delivery, research, and advocacy—as demonstrated by several Swarthmore alumni, including Hodson.

“One thing that drew me to Swarthmore was its emphasis not on someone’s opinions or beliefs, but their ability to think critically and engage in meaningful dialogue. This concept is so important when you’re working with people from different backgrounds, and it’s the core of the humanities,” says the Yale School of Medicine student. “When you study science, you learn about science. When you study the humanities, you learn how to communicate, relate to others, and have a shared experience.”

Writing on the Wall

On another occasion, Hodson watched a man carry his limp, lethargic son into a rural health clinic, where caregivers responded by administering a malaria rapid diagnostic test.

The child did not survive.

“In the U.S., if you were at death’s door, you would receive intensive care unit-level care. This moment was poignant not only because the boy died but because of the lack of resources available,” says Hodson, noting that experiences like this amplified his determination to persuade government officials in Dakar to allocate more supplies across southern Senegal. Malaria is easy to diagnose and treat, but residents in peripheral areas face barriers to obtaining the necessary test kits and medications.

Hodson developed such a drive to solve the malaria crisis that he spent the summer after his first year of medical school conducting malaria research in Cameroon. At the end of his subsequent semester, he returned for a short follow-up trip before coming back to the States for the holidays.

The day after Christmas, he was visiting his girlfriend’s family in a small New Hampshire town when he felt feverish and tired.

“I was actually carrying malaria rapid diagnostic tests and a few doses of a first-line antimalarial with me, since I had just been in Cameroon and knew malaria was always a possibility,” he says. “The test was positive, so I started treatment—it was as simple as that. It was a huge irony that I was sick with malaria in a remote place and happened to have the medicine on me. If only that could be the case for everyone.”

Hodson’s time overseas continues to inspire him today. He writes notes on chalkboard walls in his bedroom—a habit he formed in Senegal. He ties his bag to the back of his bike as he was taught there. He wears a neon yellow knitted cap made by a community health worker who named his son Mamady Daniel. And he is eager to begin a primary care clinical rotation this fall in the poorest county of Tennessee, a low-resource area where he hopes to draw on lessons he learned in Senegal. He also remains in touch with many of the people he met during his Peace Corps service and believes his humanities background has helped nurture that closeness.

“It is so easy along the very long road to becoming a physician to get sucked into medicine, medicine, medicine—but most people you meet don’t come from that background,” he says. “If all you know is science and medicine, you’re not going to be able to identify and interact with people. And what mattered most throughout all of my experiences is relationships with my host family, friends, and collaborators.”

Chris Howson ’71, who earned a B.A. in anthropology and sociology before pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology, echoes the importance of developing interpersonal communication skills through the humanities. Now an independent global health consultant, Howson spent 12 years doing health research with the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) and 18 years with the March of Dimes, which he joined in 1998 to build the maternal and child health organization’s first global programs, primarily to support developing countries.

Howson’s work has taken him all over the world, and he attributes his ability to engage with researchers from widely varying backgrounds to his study of cultural anthropology, “a fascinating field that deals with different human societies and elements of cultural life.”

The competencies he cultivated at Swarthmore have served him beyond professional interactions. Once, when traveling in a region that was less than welcoming  to Westerners, he found himself amidst an unfriendly group. He did the only thing he could think of: grabbing three rocks off the ground and starting to juggle.

“They all crowded around,” Howson recalls. “I stopped and held a rock out to the person in front and motioned asking if he wanted to learn to juggle. Suddenly, he smiled, and everything was cool. Underneath it all, we really are the same.

“My education taught me to enter into the minds of other people—to see their perspectives and understand their fears, hopes, and dreams,” he continues. “I became more compassionate, more accepting, and more understanding of astounding diversity that is all around me.”

Social Justice as a Motivator

Kendra McDow ’07, a pediatrician serving an Epidemic Intelligence Service fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came to Swarthmore planning to focus on the sciences. To meet College requirements for coursework in multiple academic divisions, she enrolled in a religion class on Islam—and fell in love with the readings and discussions.

“I discovered a breadth of thought I’d never been exposed to before,” says McDow, who ultimately earned a dual degree in biology and religion. “Religion involves more than just theology. It’s people’s histories, philosophies, and approaches to the world.”

These studies benefited McDow throughout her medical training and later in her practice at a Maryland-based federally qualified health center that served a large immigrant population.

“Our patients came from all over: the Middle East, South America, Africa. My background allowed me to connect to them with compassion; I understood how culture and belief systems might impact their health and how I could deliver care to them respectfully and effectively,” she explains. “For example, when you’re examining a patient who wears a head covering, there are certain ways you should touch them, and I recognized that.”

Like Hodson and Howson, McDow views her work through a lens of social justice. When an uninsured Nigerian immigrant came into her office with her 10-year-old son, whose severe arm pain had been dismissed by emergency physicians, McDow performed a comprehensive exam and determined he had sickle cell disease; she then persistently followed up to make sure he got the care he needed. When a teenager from a troubled family came in seeking a pregnancy test, McDow took the time to get to know her; she learned about the girl’s history of depression, drug use, and suicide attempts, then spent an entire year working with colleagues to secure a spot for her in a residential treatment facility.

“The paperwork and coordination needed for this to happen took so long—families could never do it on their own. These patients have to overcome so many barriers to obtain equitable access to health care,” McDow says. “As a black woman, a physician, and a public health professional, I want to be a voice for minorities in America.”

Social justice is also a motivator for Noah Metheny ’03, who studied political science with a minor in history and a concentration in peace and conflict studies, then earned a law degree and a master of public health. Metheny has devoted much of his career to empowering and advocating for people living with HIV/AIDS and now lives in Geneva, where he leads community engagement efforts for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Metheny pursued public health because it is a unique approach to addressing broader human rights concerns. “I work to strengthen advocates’ capacities to tackle underlying social justice issues that make their communities vulnerable to these diseases,” he says. “The HIV epidemic, in particular, starkly illustrates the injustices and incoherence within societies and health systems. It impacts some of the most marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed, who often experience compounding discrimination due to gender identity, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, immigration status, or socioeconomic status.”

The interdisciplinary nature of peace and conflict studies helped Metheny carve out his professional path; his courses, which covered everything from history to religion to politics, consistently emphasized social context.

“My professors and the other students created spaces to talk and debate, not only about what is written in every textbook, but also the real, lived experiences of people who ... throughout history but might not have had the power or privilege to have their experiences documented in the same way,” he explains. “We discussed and analyzed information in a critical way that allowed me to form my own opinions, then identify and understand connections to broader issues, often involving social justice.”

The Heart of What Matters

About five years ago, Jim Forrester ’59, longtime cardiology chief and the George Burns and Gracie Allen Professor Emeritus of Cardiovascular Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, was reflecting on his career and how it all began: with one of his first coronary disease patients, a 39-year-old man named Willie. Forrester called him “Willie the Phillie,” a nod to the men’s shared love of Philadelphia baseball.

When Willie died of a heart attack, Forrester was at his bedside.

“I felt helpless because there was no treatment at that time, and all I could offer him was morphine for pain relief. I knew medicine had to be better than that,” says Forrester, who vowed to find ways to reduce deaths from heart attack.

He succeeded. Over a career spanning more than five decades, he developed several major advancements, including the Forrester Classification—a method of assessing heart function, drug response, and prognosis in real time as an inpatient is having a heart attack. The approach, and several others pioneered by Forrester and his peers, revolutionized heart-failure treatment.

“Today, Willie the Phillie would have survived to live a long, fulfilling life,” says Forrester, who was inspired by memories of his friendship with the patient to write The Heart Healers: The Misfits, Mavericks, and Rebels Who Created the Greatest Medical Breakthrough of Our Lives.

Reading like a novel, the 2015 book traces the evolution of cardiology while detailing Forrester’s personal and professional encounters with innovators who transformed the field.

Forrester, who majored in English literature, says his education taught him how to express himself effectively—a skill he has relied on for more than just book-writing. In fact, he believes he owes his entire career to his humanities background. Shortly after he completed his training and joined what was then a small community hospital in California, the National Institutes of Health announced its largest-ever clinical research program, which would establish nine heart attack research units across the country. Forrester’s supervisor charged him with crafting their group’s grant, knowing he had writing skills that physicians with exclusively science backgrounds didn’t.

“With our grant, we challenged conventional wisdom and thought outside the box, which is what my humanities education was all about,” Forrester says. “Other institutions proposed looking at bed-rest treatment, but ours was an entirely different proposal to catheterize the heart and treat right in middle of heart attack.”

The creativity paid off: Grant awardees included eight large, well-known universities “and our little private hospital with its radical ideas.” Forrester led the newly established research unit for the next 20 years.

Another cardiologist, Nazanin Moghbeli ’96, also thrives off creativity. Most mornings, Moghbeli wakes at 5, turns on the Persian music she’s listened to since her childhood in Iran, and spends at least an hour painting. The opportunity to unleash her creative energy leaves her more focused on her work parenting three children and directing the cardiac-care unit at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Moghbeli earned a dual degree in biology and art, fields that seem disparate but that she feels complement each other perfectly, especially when it comes to cardiology. “The way the heart works is beautiful, and so is the imagery in the pictures we do—angiograms, echocardiograms, electrocardiograms. I am constantly looking at visual interpretations of scientific information that appeal to me both aesthetically and intellectually.”

Medical practice is intense and draining, notes Moghbeli, who works two-week blocks in the cardiac intensive care unit, a stressful environment where patients are very ill and often dying. Painting rejuvenates her and protects her from burnout. Her art background also helps her connect with patients; once, a man asked to delay a surgery until he finished restoring a car—and instead of rolling her eyes, she identified with his passion and supported him.

Three years ago, Moghbeli collaborated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to introduce an art workshop for medical residents at the hospital where she worked at the time. The class was so successful that she has begun offering it at Einstein and is developing a similar program for Descartes University in Paris, where she lived for a year.

“Art education improves observation skills and empathy,” she says. “It forces you to figure things out and make yourself vulnerable by accepting the discomfort in not having clear-cut answers. You learn to think more creatively.”

Synthesize This

Humanities education does not simply prepare people to be artists, novelists, musicians, historians, and philosophers. It teaches them to be self-aware, well-rounded problem solvers who are equipped for a career in any field.

“Programs that only emphasize science and technology fail to develop students’ emotional IQ, which is a crucial deficiency,” Forrester says. “The humanities deal with emotion, motivation, psychology, spirituality, and empathy, and these things stay with you for a lifetime. My belief is that everyone should learn culture and compassion in college and then learn their trade in graduate school.”

Rather than strictly being vocational training, an undergraduate experience like that at Swarthmore lends itself to opportunities for learning about subjects that cause people to think more broadly about the world, as well as their place in it.

Chris Howson distills it succinctly: “The most creative people are synthesizers who can pull in things from different fields and make them fit. You can’t engage in the humanities without developing some understanding of and appreciation for diversity. This brings people closer together—and when we’re closer together, the world is better for it.

Thomas Jefferson University partnership

Swarthmore College and Thomas Jefferson University announced an early acceptance program for Swarthmore students

Last fall, Swarthmore College and Thomas Jefferson University announced an early acceptance program for Swarthmore students interested in becoming physicians with expertise in health policy, population health, and community engagement. The program combines medical education, community engagement, and policy for the public good. “Swarthmore has long produced doctors from diverse academic backgrounds who go on to be leaders in their field,” says President Valerie Smith. “Doctors trained in the liberal arts are increasingly vital to the profession for their ability to treat patients holistically. The fact that medical schools seek out Swarthmore students demonstrates that they appreciate the value of an excellent liberal arts education.”