Ways of Caring
Krista Noelle

I learned early that life and pain are inextricably bound, that right and wrong are not always clear categories. Because I am deeply compassionate about these universal human struggles, I always knew I wanted to spend my life helping people. I wanted to help people find dignity in their life experience as well as their death experience. So, how did I end up spending the last twelve years of my life in educational finance?

The answer is that I did not know how to help. What understanding did I possess, or could I learn, that could make a difference? I am interested in all fields of study that deal with the human condition for, surely, no one field of study can tell us the whole picture. For example, history tells us of our past, psychology informs us on the mind and emotion, anatomy and physiology teach us about the body, sociology provides us with a framework of social influences, and philosophy helps us wrestle with logic and reason. But I needed a focus. Medical Humanities became the glue that bound all that I believed, all that I was learning, and all that I will learn together.

I believe that helping people means looking at them holistically; because the mind, body, and spirit inform and affect each other, I should learn about all three. When I finally decided to go back to school, I looked for a degree in "Biopsychology," or how the mind affects the body physiologically, but there was no such degree on the East Coast. So, I began my studies at Wilmington University as an "undecided." I took classes such as the Biological Basis of Behavior, Conceptual Physics, and Human Anatomy and Physiology. These classes influenced me a great deal; they furthered my resolve to search more deeply into the mind-body-spirit connection but gave me no clear agenda.

When I transferred to the University of Delaware, I began in Cognitive Science. It was fascinating but it was not quite what I had in mind. So, I took serious stock in what my next step should be: I knew I didn’t want to be a psychology major because I did not want to work as a therapist with various forms of “abnormal” psychology; and the sciences did not offer the human element that I sought. Finally, I decided on a sociology major. Interestingly, the reason I decided on sociology was that I disagreed with what I believed to be its core philosophy—that of creating a science of the human experience through grouping and statistics, a view in which individual potential gets lost. My thinking was that, by seeking this challenge to my way of thinking, I would gain an understanding and appreciation for different viewpoints that would be invaluable when I began working with people.

And then I found the Medical Humanities minor. I was so excited! I would never have looked for the classes that were listed in the curriculum, but they were the perfect foundation for the direction I wanted to take. I began with the "Sociology of Healthcare" and "Society, Politics, and Healthcare." I learned a lot about what is wrong with our healthcare system, such as the way in which doctors are "professionalized" to take the human element out of medicine, I learned to look out for common fallacies about healthcare spending, and I was introduced to the idea of thinking of hospitals as social systems. Along the way, I read Beyond Caring by Daniel F. Chambliss, a wonderful sociological study of how moral dilemmas are currently playing out in hospitals. I realized that medicine, especially doctors, should be held accountable for its diminishing consideration for human suffering. Moreover, our society must learn to honor death as part of the natural life cycle. As such, I believe that hospice and euthanasia should be seriously considered as alternatives when the life-saving decisions presented by current medical technology reaches absurd extremes such as giving an eighty-five year old harsh chemotherapy, or believing that the elderly should die with an astronomically expensive hospital stay instead of allowing them to die with dignity at home.

In those first classes, I also learned some of the history behind the politics of healthcare. We read The Truth about the Drug Companies by Marcia Angell, M.D. and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman—both are very moving and illuminating books. Dr. Angell's book solidified my belief that our society should be educated in, and encouraged to follow, natural wellness practices. Actually, every American should read The Truth about the Drug Companies! Additionally, Anne Fadiman's book strengthened my belief in respecting traditional thinking and cultural differences. What was most inspiring in this book was a story about a doctor who cleverly stepped out of his box of empirical medicine, using an understanding of the local religion to help him teach tribes in India about public health. I got so much out of these first two classes that I knew choosing the Medical Humanities minor was a good decision.

My first semester of Medical Humanities classes helped me to decide to continue my education with a Master's program in Herbal Medicine. I had tentatively decided on becoming a life or wellness coach, and incorporating herbal medicine was a wonderful way to empower people with respect to the health of their own bodies—the body being the vehicle we use to live our lives. Since then, other classes in this minor have inspired me to continue in the direction of my dreams, and have given me awareness and a breadth of knowledge which is uniquely suited for the direction my life is taking.

My college experience has definitely given me an appreciation for the importance of history. History helps us to take a step back and see where we've been so that we can make thoughtful decisions in the present about our future. In "History of Western Medicine", another class in the minor, it was amazing see how the United States has came to have the medical reality we see today. So many valid forms of healing have been almost eradicated in the competition for supremacy, power, and money in our "open market." I'm sure I will be keeping the textbooks for this class. Meanwhile, a philosophy class for the minor, "Killing and Letting Die," opened me up to the moral dilemma behind many healthcare decisions and the importance of giving serious thought to our moral intuitions. I think I had believed that everyone shared the same basic moral intuition and that it was merely differing religious views that created issues about such questions as abortion, birth control, and euthanasia. I realize now that the difficulties are much more complicated than that. This class has better prepared me in my desire to become an advocate for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

I am very grateful I found this minor in Medical Humanities and hope that one day it broadens into a full degree program. I have so many future goals: helping people through herbalism and life-coaching; helping the dying face death with dignity and joy; helping families deal with the imminent death of a loved one; and so much more. I would love to have gotten a degree in every available subject on the human condition, but although I hope to spend my whole life learning, I did not want to be a perpetual student. The diversified classes of this minor were like the red thread that pulled together everything I've been learning: I now believe I have the direction and a firm ground I needed to begin my new career.