“One Community/One Book” brings noted author to campus

In her memoir “Final Exam,” transplant surgeon Pauline W. Chen meditates on death and how doctors face it

SAN ANTONIO (Sept. 22, 2009) — Pauline W. Chen, M.D., a transplant surgeon who, in her memoir “Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality,” explores how doctors well-schooled in saving lives all too often must teach themselves to face death with empathy and compassion, will speak at noon on Friday, Sept. 25, in the auditorium of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Her visit is the culmination of the Health Science Center’s second-annual “One Community/One Book” program, a project of the Health Science Center Libraries, the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, and the University Transplant Center.

“It’s really just an opportunity to get together and have conversations that might not take place otherwise – to reflect a little bit more,” said Susan Hunnicutt, special projects librarian at the Health Science Center’s Briscoe Library. “The work can be very fast-paced, very demanding on lots of different levels. It’s nice to have a chance to step back, relax and be with people.”

The “One Book” concept was conceived at the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, where librarians Nancy Pearl and Chris Higashi in 1998 first began a citywide conversation centered on one carefully chosen book – in that case, “The Sweet Hereafter,” by Russell Banks. The concept was picked up by the Chicago Public Library and then by public libraries across the country.

“Then a lot of academic libraries picked up on the idea because they realized you can personalize the program through the selection of the book to the audience that you’re trying to reach,” Hunnicutt said.

The Health Science Center’s selection of “Final Exam” offers a good illustration. Dr. Chen, who writes the “Doctor and Patient” column in the New York Times, uses the memoir to recount her own experiences with death and to reflect on lessons learned. She takes an unflinching look at her own failures with dying patients and their families, and she examines recent improvements within the profession.

John Littlefield, director of the Health Science Center’s Academic Center for Excellence in Teaching, trained facilitators to lead small-group discussions on the book. Gatherings have been scheduled on and off campus throughout September and into October.

The Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics was central to the project. The book was incorporated into the center’s popular “Literature and Medicine” elective for second- and fourth-year medical students, and students will receive class credit for attending Dr. Chen’s presentation. Ruth Berggren, M.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, also hosted a book discussion in her home.

Selecting a book that features a woman who is not only a transplant surgeon, author and highly regarded New York Times columnist, but also a mother, wife and humanitarian, “is a powerful way to show our trainees what they can achieve,” Dr Berggren said.

“She upends many stereotypes about surgeons, writers, women and students,” Dr. Berggren said. “As such, her material makes a great starting point for meaningful conversations about what we do in medicine and how we can do a better job of conveying empathy to the people we serve.”

Dr. Chen’s presentation will be simulcast to Health Science Center campuses in San Antonio, Laredo and Harlingen. In addition to her noon discussion, Dr. Chen also will present at the Transplant Center’s grand rounds at 8 a.m. that day.

“One Community/One Book” is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Last year, the university’s inaugural “One Community/One Book” selection was “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” by Tracy Kidder.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 25,600 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.

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