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Medical humanities: demarcations, dilemmas and delights
  1. Audrey Shafer
  1. Dr Audrey Shafer, Anesthesia 112A VAPAHCS, 3801 Miranda Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304, USA; ashafer{at}

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Dark/light, question/answer, teacher/student, science/art, female/male. Our lives are chock-a-block with categories. It is human nature to distinguish pattern, indeed it is life-saving on the savannah or on a city street to differentiate movement from stillness. However, we live mostly in the in-between. In the give-and-take between categories, relationship becomes paramount and seemingly definitive boundaries blur. What makes life messy and uncertain also, after all, makes life interesting. Furthermore, anything with a moral quality, such as good and bad, will have associated quandaries and nuances.

Medical humanities is an area of scholarship, education and creativity peopled with those who primarily, secondarily or in no way associate themselves with the field. Therein lies the first demarcation, dilemma and delight. From my initial exposure to medical humanities, at a weeklong seminar at Hiram College in the cornfields of Ohio, I knew I was in for an intellectually fascinating ride. In attendance and presenting were theologians, nurses, English professors, social workers, physicians, historians, anthropologists, artists, writers, therapists, educators, ethicists and of course those who wore multiple hats—what a collection of talent and experience! We had (and continue to have) engaging, productive interactions both in the seminar and off-hours. Cross-fertilisation is the delight, professional barriers the dilemma. Language, career development priorities, funding sources and educational domains vary strikingly between groups of professionals. Nonetheless, these people did associate themselves, to varying degrees, with medical humanities. Clearly there are many, many more who work on, write about and wrestle with themes and issues of medical humanities who do not affiliate themselves with the field. For example, few filmmakers, writers …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Audrey Shafer is a government employee.