Healing and the humanities

Feature story: A new partnership shows how the humanities can give healthcare workers greater empathy and understanding for both their patients and each other.

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A pilot partnership with UAB shows how the humanities can enhance healthcare in Alabama.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Mosaic, the magazine of the Alabama Humanities Alliance. 


It seems the perfect complement — the science of health and the disciplines of the humanities coming together for better understanding, not only of complex issues, but of one another.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reigned over everyday lives the past year and a half, healthcare remained in the spotlight. Healthcare workers have been seen as heroes on the battlefront, aiding and comforting during the pandemic’s darkest days.

At about the same time, the Alabama Humanities Alliance (AHA) was looking to revamp its Humanities and Healthcare program, which led to the creation of a virtual book club centered around National Nurses Week.

“The goal is to give healthcare professionals a chance to take a step back and view their work through a different lens,” says Chuck Holmes, executive director of AHA, “Healthcare itself is often more about questions than answers, and that’s what the humanities can help with. Hopefully, this program will give nurses greater empathy and understanding for both their patients and each other.”

The program had its beginnings at the Fort Rucker Center Library and in veterans hospitals in Tuscaloosa, and later through AIDS outreach programs in Birmingham and Mobile. After COVID-19 hit, it seemed a natural next step to take the program into nursing. AHA worked with Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president/COO of the Alabama Hospital Association, and the conversation turned toward UAB, the state’s largest hospital system, to be the starting point.

UAB Chief of Nursing Officer Terri Poe and Fameka Leonard, nurse manager for Medical Nursing Nephrology, served as catalysts for the evolving program. A series of conversations and planning led to a test program for humanities-based reading, presented by scholar Valerie Pope Burnes, associate professor of history at the University of West Alabama. Thirty people showed up for the initial one-day book-reading event with GROW, UAB’s employee resource group for women.

On the heels of that success, key players developed a virtual book club event conducted through podcasts that could be downloaded and listened to at nurses’ convenience during National Nurses Week. The book chosen was Hidden Figures, the story of Black female mathematicians who broke many a barrier in route to helping America and NASA dominate aeronautics in the space race of the 1950s.

Many nurses could see the similarities in their own story of being on the frontline of helping America get through the worst healthcare crisis it has ever faced.

One participant shared that she “loved that professional people from various occupations could participate in the conversation and provide feedback…and then watch the movie version of the book. That was a super opportunity. Also, the ability to share cultural histories for a broader understanding of the text was eye-opening.”

In all, 34 nurses and other professionals signed up for the weeklong reading event that culminated in a celebratory remote viewing of the Oscar-winning movie based on the book.

This approach can now be replicated at any hospital throughout Alabama and even spur a “big read” connecting health professionals across the state.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with AHA over the past few months,” Leonard said. “Our CNO Terri Poe thought these programs could go a long way in supporting the overall wellness of our nurses and other team members who have been such fantastic and tireless caregivers during the pandemic.”

AHA also worked with Leonard to provide on-demand content that made it more convenient for healthcare workers with busy schedules.

“That accessibility is great for our teams,” Leonard says. “We have already had other employee resource groups request facilitators from AHA for their events. People see the benefit of the program and want to be a part of it.”

Humanities and healthcare

Since 2012, Alabama Humanities Alliance has partnered with hospitals, veterans centers, and community organizations in Alabama to offer the Humanities and Healthcare program.

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