Led by Gareth Williams, Friday afternoons in first and second term were devoted to Oakhill workshops, discussions and presentations. These sessions were always interesting, and often involved cake (sometimes homemade, sometimes shop-bought). Every few weeks, Gareth would ask us to present on a certain topic: this definitely improved our presentation skills. The topics that we explored in these sessions – from big pharma to Lyme disease to coronavirus – emphasised important and thought-provoking aspects of medical ethics and the history of medicine.
I will always remember one session: ‘Bad Doctors’. We learnt about Unit 731, a Japanese camp which conducted experiments on prisoners during WW2. Rape, operations without anaesthetic, clubbing, freezing of limbs, experiments with infection – Unit 731 had no survivors. The unit’s scientists designed biological weapons which were used in China. We learnt about Nazi human experimentation and the Nuremburg Doctors’ Trial. We learnt about how children with learning disability were given hepatitis in the Willowbrook State School, New York as part of an experiment that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Some things you would rather not know, but you need to know, and you should know.
The Oakhill sessions also bridged the gap between the humanities components of our course and medical practice. They allowed us to think about medical practice more deeply, and explore the practical application of ideas and works of art.
This was particularly true of Oakhill guest facilitator Ishminder Mangat’s session on poetry and medicine. Ishminder, a doctor and alumni of this course, took us through a selection of poems related to our own experiences. W.H. Auden’s ‘Miss Gee’ particularly spoke to me:
They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
She lay there a total wreck,
Lay in the ward for women
With the bedclothes right up to her neck.
They laid her on the table,
The student began to laugh;
And Mr Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half.
Mr Rose he turned to his students,
Said, 'Gentlemen, if you please,
We seldom see a sarcoma
As far advanced as this.'
They took her off the table,
They wheeled away Miss Gee
Down to another department
Where they study Anatomy.
We discussed how patients can be dehumanised by medical professionals, experiences with anatomy teaching, and how we steer a line between fake empathy and cruel detachment.
We also heard from a spoken word artist, Danny Pandolfi, and explored how spoken words can give people with illness or disability a voice.