Compassion in medicine

Photo of palliative care patientBryant Huang, a second-year medical student at the Long School of Medicine, is passionate about doctors and their ability to connect with patients on a human level. He believes that a competent doctor is one who is not only knowledgeable in his field but also in his communication skills with patients.

That’s what led him to his project, “Still Life, Reflections on Hope and Illness,” a combination of photography, writing and connecting with palliative care patients. The project began at the end of his first year in medical school.

Unlike many specialties, he said, palliative care has a more personal touch. “With palliative care, you really get to know the families and the patients, whether it’s the kids, the mom, the dad. That was really what interested me, how you could communicate effectively and how to treat them better.”

Huang’s instructor in his ethics class was Jason Morrow, M.D., a palliative care physician who also has a Ph.D. in medical humanities. They discussed a project for Huang that encompassed his passion for patients with his talents in photography and writing.

After brainstorming for a few months, they decided on the right project for Huang.

“The initial idea was that I would take pictures of patients, interview them, and then do a little write up with each picture,” he said.

After consent forms were created with the hospital’s legal team, Dr. Morrow provided Huang with a list of patients he thought would be willing and able to talk to him. What Huang found the most shocking was how willing most patients were to talk to him.

“Every single patient I have been to is happy and is excited to talk to me,” he said

The project consists of Huang sitting down with the patient, listening to them, asking them open-ended questions, then taking photos of them. Each photo has a theme, which is based on his question to the patient, ‘what do you find most meaningful to you in your current stage of life?’

“When you are faced with your health condition, ‘meaning’ changes from when you are a kid, to a teenager, to 20, to now, because they’re not just patients, they are people. Meaning changes when you are faced with your own mortality and realize how frail life is.”

Huang said he chooses the photo based on what is most important to the patient at this point in their life.

patient holding flower

The themes are as different as the personalities, Huang said.

There was the man who is pictured with his youngest daughter giving him a kiss on the cheek. He told Huang that what scared him the most was leaving his daughter all alone in this world. His motivation is taking care of his little girl.

Then there was the black and white photo of a man with a cowboy hat, whose leg had been amputated. There are lines and scars on his face that are as deep as his story. An encounter he once had during a troubled past caused a couple of men to be handicapped. Although the patient has come full circle in his ways, he views his condition now as a reminder of what he once did.

There was the woman who spoke to Huang the day after her wedding anniversary because she just wanted someone to talk to that day. Her photo shows her open hands holding a blossomed, yellow flower. What she wanted most was to renew her vows. Her will to live was grounded in the love she had for her husband.

Huang envisions this project as being ongoing for him, a constant element of his medical career.

“I don’t think it will ever end, it’s kind of what I want to do, even in residency,” he said. “Even if you don’t take pictures of patients, just getting to know them–that’s a life project.”

What he hopes this project will bring to his classmates and everyone that views “Still Life” is the realization that medicine is about humans and compassionately connecting to each patient is a valuable and crucial skill.

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