The Human Side of Medicine
Students explore person-centered care at the intersection of science and the humanities
In the Tate Britain Museum in London, there hangs a painting by Sir Luke Fildes called “The Doctor.” Fildes painted the image in 1891 — a time when medical training was done mostly through book reading and apprenticeships, treatment was mostly symptomatic and doctors were oftentimes bi-vocational and detached from patient care. Fildes chose to depict a scene that reflected his own personal experience with an atypical physician who was especially attentive and caring while his son fell fatally ill. According to the museum, which cites Fildes’ biography, the character the doctor displayed throughout the experience affected the painter deeply, so much so that he depicted a physician that seems to show a depth of empathy and tenderness for his patient as he sits by her side while her parents look on from afar.
The doctor portrayed in the painting has become a symbol of professional devotion to the patient as a whole person, and the painting itself a representation of the intersection of medicine and the humanities. Though it’s often assumed that students need to major in biology, chemistry or one of the “hard sciences” to enter the medical profession, the Association of American Medical Colleges asserted in 2020 that the arts and humanities were fundamental to medical education. At Baylor, that’s been true for decades. What began as a one-of-a-kind, pioneering course offered by professors Kay Toombs, B.S. ’82, M.A. ’84, Ph.D., Dr. Bill Hillis, B.S. ’53, and Ann Miller, B.A. ’49, M.A. ’51, in 1992 has since grown into a flourishing program with its own major and minor offerings for those wishing to enter the medical field and the array of vocations within it.
Dr. Lauren Barron, B.A. ’88, is a practicing physician, clinical professor and the inaugural DeBakey Chair for Medical Humanities. She says that medicine is both an art and a science, with the medical humanities program at Baylor bridging the two.
“Baylor is uniquely positioned to achieve this balance between the sciences and humanities.”
“We nurture a Christian environment to create compassionate healthcare professionals who approach healthcare through six lenses — philosophical, historical, spiritual, literary/artistic, social and behavioral. The sciences will always be important, and we expect academic excellence from our students in the sciences. That’s an absolute given. But, we have to remember that medicine is more than science. Medicine is also love,” Barron says.
To explore the concept of medicine as love, the medical humanities program offers courses such as Moral Philosophy; Medicine, Missions and the Gospel; Great Texts in Modern Science; Medicine and Healing in the Ancient World; and End of Life Care and Bereavement, to name a few.
“Baylor is uniquely positioned to achieve this balance between the sciences and humanities. There are programs at other institutions that take a similar approach with various disciplines, but our program is distinctive because of our intimate class sizes, intentional mentorship from faculty who are both healthcare professionals and exceptional instructors and researchers, and exploration of the dignity of personhood as understood through our faith,” Barron says.
SEEING WITH NEW LENSES
The added dimension of faith within the humanities and courses taught by faculty practitioners were key components to drawing junior Aron Basurto to Baylor. As a high school student in El Paso, he envisioned himself on the pre-med track and even understood how the liberal arts would help him in that pursuit.
“I was deciding between Duke and the University of Southern California at the time and looking into programs like narrative medicine at Columbia and theology in medicine at Duke, but I decided to visit Baylor where I met Dr. [Bill] Hoy,” Basurto said. “I had a conversation with him about the medical humanities program, which was super interesting to me because of my interest in ethics, and I obviously wanted to be pre-med. Medical school was always the goal, and Baylor has a great reputation when it comes to its pre-med program and getting into medical school.”
“The two pillars of medical humanities are the patient-professional relationship... [and] the patient’s experience with illness. I want to incorporate both in my future career.”
Through his relationship with Hoy that quickly developed into a mentorship and a teaching assistant position, Basurto came to fully embrace the two pillars of medical humanities.
“The two pillars of medical humanities are the patient-professional relationship, seeing the patient first instead of putting the physician first. There have been issues that have come up in patient care because patients don’t feel heard,” Basurto says. “The second pillar of medical humanities is experiential — the patient’s experience with illness. I want to incorporate both in my future career.”
That future career has evolved from what Basurto originally envisioned in high school. He’s still on the pre-med track pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in medical humanities, but his interest in healthcare policy has increased. Inspired by an in-class appearance from an alumnus of medical humanities, Gilbert Ruiz, B.A. ’15, who serves as legislative director for Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Basurto is now pursuing summer internships to further explore how he might be able to influence healthcare through governing bodies.
In the meantime, he recently put medical humanities theory into action. As a campus tour guide for undergraduate admissions, Basurto identified a need to make campus tours more ADA accessible. He and other members from his Disability and Society class worked on a research project that resulted in a proposal to procure an ADA-accessible shuttle for prospective students and families.
“One of the foundational things for me when talking about disability is using person-first language — really seeing the person behind the disability and building a relationship with them. I want to be able to help them physically, practically and spiritually because that’s the type of healer Jesus was,” Basurto says.
Those holistic aspects of healing that are explored through the study of medical humanities open up a range of vocational opportunities for students like Basurto.
“When we use the terms medicine and healthcare, we’re referring to a big tent and not just talking about medical school. One of the strengths of our medical humanities program is that it encompasses all dimensions of healthcare. Students can pursue areas of academic interest and ability and still be pre-med, and it’s really exciting to see students go through our program and discover a depth to their interest in medicine that may take them on unexpected but transformational paths,” Barron says.
CARING FOR BODY AND SOUL
For some students like Basurto, studying medical humanities adds new dimensions to their career plans. For others, like recent graduate Hunter Walker, B.A. ’23, it helps bring career as calling into focus.
“Studying medical humanities has truly transformed my occupational and professional future as I know it,” Walker says. “I came into Baylor without a full understanding of where I wanted to be and who I wanted to be. And this program has met me in those questions and given me so much development to where now I can confidently say, ‘I know where I’m going.’”
Walker, who is currently working on his M.B.A. before heading to dental school, applied to Baylor as a biology major. But, after attending Invitation to Excellence — a competitive program that showcases many of Baylor’s academic opportunities to high-ability students — he quickly changed his major to medical humanities and never looked back.
“I took my first class, Christian Spirituality in Healthcare, and I distinctly remember walking out of class on the first day and calling my mom to tell her how amazing it was to attend a school where I get to talk about us as embodied beings who recognize that we have a soul and are created for something beyond this Earth — what it looks like as a physician to care for our body and our soul, and to prioritize both of those as holy and sacred,” he says. “From that first day in a medical humanities class, I knew that I was where I needed to be.”
“I get to talk about us as embodied beings who recognize that we have a soul and are created for something beyond this earth — what it looks like as a physician to care for our body and our soul, and to prioritize both of those as holy and sacred.”
That feeling of belonging, connection and purpose was further cemented by a class project that connected Walker with one of the original visionaries of the field, Kay Toombs, professor emeritus of philosophy. Toombs, who lives with multiple sclerosis, shared her own story about living with a disability.
“I just got to sit with her and hear her perspective of health and of healing, how her husband passed away from cancer and what it was like for her to help take care of him in a world where her whole life has been about people taking care of her and her own illness,” Walker says.
At the time of the meetings with Toombs, Walker’s sister had just been diagnosed with a rare debilitating disorder, which made the connection even more meaningful.
“She shared with me that she doesn’t believe that disability is limiting by any means, and that she’s actually come to a place where she sees her multiple sclerosis diagnosis as a blessing. I was shocked by that, because this was in a season of my life where I was seeing disability change the trajectory of my family dynamic,” he says. “And her impact in my life came down to the way that she just views the world — she sees healing as a form of communion between two people rather than curative. Science isn’t curative. Our healing journey is supposed to be restoring ourselves to our personal wholeness and the completeness that is honoring to God.”
As someone who has always envisioned becoming a physician as a matter of fact for her life, senior Nevaeh Gomez is heading to medical school in the fall — and it’s a matter of where, not when. She’s applied to several schools and will be matched in February. Gomez is a first-generation college student who, like Walker, was drawn to the medical humanities through a personal experience with healthcare.
“Three of my immediate family members had cancer. Since my family doesn’t have any higher education, they turned to me to go with them to their doctor’s appointments and read their medical records to help them navigate their care,” Gomez says. “Because of that experience, I want to be the kind of physician that sees the whole person and provides the patient with the information they need so they don’t have to look to their 13-year-old granddaughter or kid to understand what is happening.”
“The medical humanities program has shown me how important it is that I’m able to build relationships with people and have patients that I can see on a longitudinal basis, not just see them pre-op and post-op.”
During her sophomore year, Gomez took a limited-edition class entitled Disrupting Racial Disparities in Healthcare, taught by Barron and Stephanie Boddie, Ph.D., of Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. She cites this course as influential in further shaping her approach to healthcare.
“That class examined issues that might seem very small and not important to the very science-based world — to current medical education — and shows you what impact things like residential segregation and Black maternal health disparities make on patient lives and on the healthcare field in general,” Gomez says.
In medical school, she plans to lean into her gifts in the sciences and hopefully become a surgeon. Though her area of specialty is still open for exploration, she’ll refer often to her medical humanities degree.
“The medical humanities program has shown me how important it is that I’m able to build relationships with people and have patients that I can see on a longitudinal basis, not just see them pre-op and post-op,” Gomez says. “I wanted to practice medicine where I see patients for a big span of their lives and build relationships with them. I love science and I’m good at it, but I want to be somebody who can have a greater impact on people’s lives. That’s a really important balance for me.”
When asked about an artistic metaphor of what medical humanities means to them, Basurto, Walker and Gomez all separately referred to Fildes’ painting. For Gomez, the fact that the doctor’s science equipment is at his back and he faces his patient with tenderness left an inedible mark. “I think that really captures what medical humanities is because I’ve grown to understand that it’s more important to understand patients as people rather than a scientific diagnosis that simply requires medicine or surgery to cure.”
As a doctor, teacher and mentor, Barron could not agree more as she expresses confidence in the outcomes her students will achieve and in the future influence of the program.
“Our students are exceptional, and getting to journey with them on this path of discovery of the human side of medicine as prospective healthcare professionals is such a privilege,” Barron says. “As we look to the future of medical humanities at Baylor, we have much to celebrate. Thanks to the generosity of Scott and Susan Orr and family for the establishment of another endowed faculty position, our program is growing and will continue to transform healthcare for future generations.”
Scott & Susan Orr Family Endowed Chair in Medical Humanities & Christian Faith
Area of Impact:
Medical Humanities Program, College of Arts & Sciences
Scott & Susan Orr of The Woodlands, Texas
Purpose of the Orr Chair:
To recruit and retain faculty leaders who will continue the program’s rich tradition of intentional mentorship, fostering deep discussions and inspiring prospective physicians, nurses, healthcare administrators and other allied healthcare professionals through their teaching on the history, impact and role of the Christian faith in healthcare delivery and administration.
About the gift:
The Orrs established the Orr Chair through a $2 million gift, and the chair will receive matching support through the Illuminate Matching Chair program. The Orrs became connected to Baylor University through their children, Andrew Orr, B.B.A. ’15, M.B.A. ’17, and Jennifer (Orr) Bondaruk, B.S.N. ’16, as well as Jennifer’s husband, Mark Bondaruk, M.Div. ’19.
In Their Words:
“Healthcare and faith touch and impact us all, and with this gift we hope that students for years to come will have the opportunity to use what they’ve learned through the program to make a practical impact on the lives of patients in need of healthcare,” Susan Orr said.