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Bringing An Artist’s Spirituality to the Practice of Medicine

Striking Left Brain/Right Brain Balance

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Above image credit: After studying a book about clinical oddities, students in Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett’s “Medicine and Art” class created heads depicting what they thought was going on in the brains of the book’s subjects. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett is a rare combination — she’s both a physician and an artist. It’s hard to imagine a dual career that requires more left brain/right brain balance than that.

As a doctor, however, she’s aware that many people get trained as physicians without paying enough attention to the spiritual side of life. Thus, they are prone to think of patients simply as an interesting pile of body organs, not as beings with minds and spirits, too.

So for the last several years she’s been teaching a class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine called “Medicine and Art.”

And she’s thrilled to discover that most of her students — even the ones who didn’t especially want to take the class but needed the credit hours — have found it stretching them in unexpected ways that will almost certainly make their practice of medicine more humane and more attuned to all three aspects of humanity: body, mind and spirit.

“I usually have one person per class who just didn’t get it,” she says. “But mostly I get rave reviews.” She says that not to boast but, rather, simply to report a result that she didn’t really expect when she started the class in 2018.

Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett
Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett. (Contributed | Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett)

In science classes, she says, students are taught “that there’s got to be a right answer. In art class, I teach them that sometimes there are right answers but there are also shades of gray and ambiguity.”

This interest in holistic medicine started early for Tilson-Mallett, a graduate of Washburn University and the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She decided to be a doctor at age 14 when she was trying to navigate a home with an alcoholic father and a “codependent” mother, she says.

Her mother eventually became attached to Unity, the spiritualist tradition founded in Kansas City in the 1880s. Although Tilson-Mallett grew up in a Disciples of Christ church and later attended a Presbyterian church, her mother’s engagement with Unity introduced the future physician to the idea “that your thoughts affect your health,” she says. So she began to combine her interest in medicine with her passion for art, earning a master’s degree that focused on textile art.

In recent years that focus has led her to produce silk screen art depicting various cells in the body. (Disclosure: I own a silk tie made of her art that subtly includes the portrayal of a series of sperm cells, though no one who has seen me wear the tie in public has ever recognized the cells as that, even when I wear it on Father’s Day.)

In addition to having her students draw, paint and sculpt, Tilson-Mallett, who recently retired from full-time work as a hospitalist, asks them to keep a journal.

“They hate it the first week,” she says. “But by the last week most of my evaluations say things like, ‘Wow. I really got into my head.’ And ‘It was really good to write things down.’ And ‘I’m so different now than at the beginning.’ ”

One of the subjects she asked the last class to write about was how the coronavirus pandemic has affected them. On an evaluation sheet afterward, one student noted this: “My journal absolutely made me more self-aware and observant. I learned a lot about myself.”

Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett's "Medicine and Art" class.
Students in Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett’s “Medicine and Art” class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City
School of Medicine create art as a way of seeing their patients as being more than just body parts. (Contributed | Dr. Nancy Tilson-Mallett)

Art, she says, “teaches observation skills. It teaches you how to look. But for the class it’s look, see, observe and heal. There’s so much more than just looking.”

And she’s convinced this will make these students better physicians because they’ll be more likely to try to take care of the whole person, not just someone’s pneumonia or broken arm.

The readings in Tilson-Mallett’s classes can be unusual. For instance, she has had students read a book about clinical oddities, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. Then she asked them to illustrate one of the stories Sacks tells. The students produced a series of colorful human heads depicting what they imagined was going on in the brains of their characters they were depicting.

Tilson-Mallet’s course is uncommon, though other medical schools also have begun to offer cross-disciplinary classes to get physicians to tune into the spirituality of their patients.

The Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine, for instance, partners with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., on a course called “Art, Observation and Medicine,” which the school describes as “an interactive course that utilizes visual arts in a museum setting to enhance a student’s critical thinking, communications and observation skills.”

And one of the medical schools most noted as a leader in this medicine-art effort is Penn State University. Beyond that, Columbia University has been using writing and other literary approaches to train physicians in an approach called “narrative medicine.”

Tilson-Mallett now is working to create a new class in what she calls complementary medicine, which she says means, “medical approaches that are outside of allopathic, Western medicine. Since the 1970s a lot of these approaches have become mainstream.”

Those methods include such spiritual and physical practices as meditation, yoga, tai chi, chiropractic, massage and aromatherapy.

As Tilson-Mallett explains, “I give students exercises for empathy and trying to see the patient, walking in their shoes.”

And wouldn’t it be nice to have a physician who sees us as more than a pile of tissue that needs fixing?

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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