The medical school journey is a roadway lined with many mileposts. These appear suddenly and pass quickly – in laboratories, lecture halls, clinics, and patient rooms. Often the travelers are not even aware that they have passed a milepost in the fogs of their arduous journey. We who attempt to help these travelers learn the intricacies of the roadway are amazed to see how quickly they mature – in medical, world, and personal knowledge. This is especially true for those of us who teach the basic sciences and confront the smooth, eager faces in their first medical class in mid-August each year.
Most likely it was the recognition of these passing mileposts that, 25 years ago, prompted a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine to seek the assistance of a professor in the Department of Medical Education in founding Body Electric, the now oldest continuing arts journal in a U.S. medical school. The tenet of this journal continues to be its student-centeredness: a student editorial board, student-generated literary and visual art compositions, and students’ reflections on their journey’s experiences. The annual publication of Body Electric in April comprises material from students (the primary contributors), faculty, and staff, including those in associated health institutions of the university. Cash prizes are awarded for top submissions in the separate literary and visual arts categories, as judged by a panel of student, staff, and faculty editors. Student interest and participation at every level maintain continuance of the journal.
What I find most fascinating about the works featured in Body Electric is the insight that they provide into the journey – the process of becoming a physician, or iatrogenesis (excuse my corruption of the Latin – it is taken from the name of the student yearbook of the Wayne State University School of Medicine where I spent many years). The self-reflection necessitated by an individual undertaking an artistic creation not only renders the creator aware of emotional mileposts being passed, it constructs a narrow window through which others can glimpse a temporary stage in that individual’s emotional journey, in this case, toward a noble profession.
This is evident in the two prize-winners in the literary category of the 2009 Body Electric. The poem “Tense” by Lawren VandeVrede (Class of 2011, MD/PhD program) examines the time signature of our human journey from the perspective of the dissection laboratory. The essay “My first (do no harm) patient” by Paul Karagiannis (Class of 2011) offers new insight into the ubiquitous image of a stethoscope draped around a doctor’s neck. Those who have trod the roadway will recognize the mileposts; those on the journey will find resonance; and others of us can peek through the windows.
NORM LIESKA is an Associate Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he is director of the gross anatomy program. He co-founded the Writing Workshop, an elective writing experience taught by a writer-in-residence and sponsored by the Medical Humanities Program of the Department of Medical Education. The year-long workshop is offered annually in conjunction with the first year medical gross anatomy course. He has been a faculty judge for the literary section of Body Electric for several years.
Visit the Body Electric website to learn more about the journal’s history as well as to peruse archival editions of the journal.