Hey, Residents! For February, we interviewed Dr. Ashleigh Vallée, a PGY-2 in Family Medicine. We chatted with Dr. Vallée on the topic of medicine and literature, and the connection that exists between the two for her.
In addition to being a Family Practice resident, you also have an MA in Literature and are passionate about arts in medicine. What kind of connection exists for you between the two fields, which so often can be seen as being very separate or different from each other?
In my experience, these fields are very much interrelated. I initially approached medicine through the lens of the humanities. In my graduate degree, I studied medical history alongside literature, working to capture illness within a larger framework and understand the political and social contexts of disease. Literature focuses not on the patient but on the person, which is an important point to remember. When people enter the healthcare system, they bring with them a story –a narrative of illness. It is drafted in the ambulance, rewritten in the emergency department, and edited through medical interviews. Often, a phrase or two are forgotten, a word misspelled, or a section made indecipherable by a physician’s hand, but what remains holds healing value.
For me, writing is a way to remain grounded in medicine. When I reflect on a patient encounter or difficult case, I find myself uncovering details that I had overlooked in the day or better understanding the dynamic I had observed between a patient and their family. Additionally, I find myself drawing from literature all the time during daily practice: I find moments of art within medicine, which stimulates my creativity and sustains my energy.
That being said, my poetic fascination with medicine is not always helpful. I was scrubbed into a surgery in medical school, when the surgeon said “this patient looks etherized,” and I felt myself quicken with excitement (a TS Eliot reference!). I jumped in to finish the line, “let us go through certain half-deserted streets,” and was deeply embarrassed by the stunned silence that followed.
What would you like to see change, or occur in the field of medicine, from the perspective of art in medicine?
I would love to see more humanities graduates entering the medical field. Traditionally the path to medicine has always been through science, but I think that students from diverse backgrounds can offer new and rejuvenating perspectives on the challenges facing physicians today.
Do you have any plans for the future on further incorporating your experience in medicine towards your interest in literature or vice versa?
Yes! I have recently applied to the Clinical Scholar Program at UBC in hopes of working on an interdisciplinary project examining poetic responses to 18th-century anti-vaccine campaigns. Vaccine hesitancy is often equated with modern anti-scientific attitudes, but in truth, anti-vaccine sentiments date back to the emergence of Edward Jenner’s original small-pox vaccine. Fascinatingly, the astute father-of-vaccination himself, Jenner, anticipated this passionate reaction to vaccination. Instead of employing a solely scientific approach, he chose to counteract anxieties about vaccines with a poetic campaign. He encouraged the poets of the era to compose odes in support of vaccination. My hope is that this project will remind us of the efficacy of a multidisciplinary approach to challenges in public health and provide practicing family physicians with novel ways to approach vaccine hesitancy in the community.
As of the publication of this Spotlight, Dr. Vallée has been accepted to the Clinical Scholar Program, and we offer her congratulations!
Dr. Vallée’s book, “Pluto and the MRI Rocket Ship Adventure”, which she wrote and illustrated herself, can be found as an e-book online.