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USC HEAL Program is at the Nexus of Art and Healing

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At USC’s Keck School of Medicine’s HEAL (Humanities, Ethics/Economics, Arts and the Law) program, Director Pam Schaff and artist-in-residence Ted Meyer are forging a quiet revolution in medical training known as narrative medicine.

The training was created by Schaff’s mentor, Dr. Rita Charon, director and founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Narrative medicine uses art to integrate individual narratives into clinical practice, research and education by increasing empathy and reflection in the doctor-patient relationship. 

Schaff knew she wanted to be doctor while she was in high school, but she also loved literature. Raised in a Conservative household, she was drawn to Judaism’s emphasis on “learning, scholarship, on education, questioning tradition.” She was a pre-med English major at Pomona College and went on to graduate from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York in 1980.

Schaff moved back to Los Angeles and established a private pediatric practice in Tarzana before being approached to teach a class one day a week at USC’s Keck Introduction to Clinical Medicine (ICM) program on a voluntary basis. In 1996, she closed her private practice to become the director of the ICM program.

By 2007, Schaff was the associate dean of curriculum at Keck and the director of HEAL. She embraced narrative medicine, reinvigorating HEAL by moving away from structured museum or gallery visits, creating instead a gallery program on campus.

Her life, Schaff said, has been informed by “tikkun olam, the idea that it’s my responsibility to take care of whatever little corner of the world I can make better. For me, that contribution is as a physician and an educator.” 

Meyer, 62, was born with Gaucher Type 1 disease, a rare genetic disorder for which, at the time, there was no treatment or cure. A disease most commonly inherited by Jews, symptoms include joint pain, anemia, fatigue and low platelet count. 

“I was really angry,” Meyer said. “I blamed being Jewish for my pain and suffering and isolation. I learned early on Jews struggle and my struggle was going to be harder still.” Meyer endured decades of pain, including multiple hip replacements until about 20 years ago when a new drug was developed to replace the enzyme his body wasn’t making. 

“Before the new drug, I was doing art that featured tormented figures — contorted skeletons and work that reflected my pain and isolation,” Meyer said. “With this new drug, I became like a normal person.” 

Not long after the new medication began doing its work, Meyer met a woman in a wheelchair at an art gallery. “She told me, ‘You need to keep doing work about health and mobility because that’s part of you,’” Meyer said. So he asked if he could print her scar.

One body print (where Meyer rolls paint onto the subject’s body and then presses paper onto the paint to create the print) led to another. The prints became part of Meyer’s renowned ongoing “Scarred for Life” project, which includes pairing the prints with his subjects’ own narratives.

“It never occurred to me [the work] would have the effect on people it does,” Meyer said. “For a lot of people it wasn’t just art. It was closure to a major traumatic experience in their life.” 

Go back a century or two and medical education was not only about science. In the past 50 years, that’s been a renewed thrust: involving the humanities in medical education.”

— Pam Schaff

Schaff, who had heard about Meyer and was looking to enhance the HEAL program, received funding in 2016 to create a gallery on campus and hire an artist-in-residence. She reached out to Meyer who had just completed a residency at UCLA curating patient art in the medical school lobby.

“Go back a century or two and medical education was not only about science,” Schaff said. “People recognized that there were ways of knowing and understanding that couldn’t be found in science. In the past 50 years, that’s been a renewed thrust: involving the humanities in medical education.”

And for Schaff, Meyer’s ideas “made complete sense. These artist-patients could speak to their condition and life experience, and in that setting, our students could hear stories that they would never hear when they go to the hospital and take a history.” 

In what is now tied to the first- and second-year medical school curriculum at Keck, HEAL provides a yearlong program that includes four invited artist shows and talks. There’s also a fifth program each year that’s a group show: pairing healthy artists with medical school research faculty so the artists can interact with the researcher, then create a piece highlighting the researcher’s work, coupled with a narrative by the artist. 

Earlier this year, Meyer curated a show for students featuring work by Elizabeth Jameson, who has multiple sclerosis (MS). Jameson spoke about her string of progressive diagnoses, her current deterioration and taking ownership of her MRI, which she used as the basis of several paintings and prints highlighting her brain lesions. 

Second-year USC medical student Vedang Uttarwar said Jameson’s work left a lasting impression. “I think it was great to see another side of MS,” he said. “I think the paintings captured the kind of struggle she’s going through. As students, we’re so focused on the sciences; so oriented to objective solutions to problems we see in medicine. It gave me a new perspective on relieving the symptoms she’s facing.”

Uttarwar said he’s seriously considering going into neurology and credits the program with influencing his thinking. “I think events like that can really promote people choosing their specialty.”

Meyer said much of the credit goes to Schaff. “I often say that Pam’s belief that art and humanities makes better doctors and her understanding of my vision for the project has made it all possible,” he said. “I want to bring the person out from behind the disease and have students see the whole person. Doctors who see the artistic totality created by pain and illness will think about the totality of treatment long term.”

Ted Meyer’s “Scarred for Life” currently is on display at the American Association of the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., through October.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Schaff became director of HEAL in 2012.

Mitch Paradise is a writer-producer and educator in Los Angeles.

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