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Patients as our Teachers

2020  The Intricacies of Communication 


One of our first creative arts sessions focused on patient experiences as told through their own artwork. We focused particularly on pieces made by those living with cancer, shared with us by Catherine Lamont-Robinson, an artist and medical educator, and our creative supervisor.


What struck me about their pieces of art was the piercing honesty. There are moments in clinical practice when a patient might want to communicate to you feelings, fears, and anxieties that could never be communicated through words. Sometimes it is from a subtle shift in body language, other times it occurs through tears. It is both a privilege and a terrifying responsibility to be placed in such a situation. Viewing these drawings, photos and poems felt like a vivid insight into the meaning that patients might want to convey to their doctors but are not able to in the moment. 


One piece, entitled ‘So Alone’ encapsulates what so many patients experience – a stuffy doctor’s office filled to the brim with nurses, medical students, other registrars and consultants, an overwhelming barrage of information, and no opportunity to voice the utter isolation and suffocation of a cancer diagnosis.

Another piece, a poem titled ‘Am I going to die?’ is about a medical folder left on the side of the bed. This seemingly innocuous situation, something I have seen time and time again in hospital placement, had a profoundly antagonising effect on a patient. Yet, it is not that doctors purposefully leave the folders there – how are they to know the effect a folder, so commonplace and so boring, full of complicated diagrams that patients could never understand. It is simply that a barrier of communication exists between patients and doctors.

These pieces not only highlighted where the barriers exist but also offered a route to dismantling those barriers.

We were encouraged to create our own art pieces in response to any of the patient pieces that particularly struck us. What I found was that accessing the feelings and emotions I so rarely speak out loud was difficult, but once I had the idea the creative process felt effortless. It felt like what I wanted to say needed to be said, as though I had been repressing it for some time. I wondered how this creative process would have felt for those patients. 


I am writing after looking over the patient art pieces again, months after the actual session. I can’t properly express how profoundly moving, deeply honest and intimate these art pieces made me feel (maybe I should make an art piece on it). 

It is one thing talking to a patient about their experiences as a medical student. Interrogating them. Asking them questions you don’t feel comfortable asking, sometimes fearing the answer you might hear. Art seems to allow patients to speak their mind to the world while not speaking to any individual in particular. From there, we can learn from patients what they wish doctors knew and educate ourselves to become better, more empathetic doctors.


Sam Lee

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