Skip to main content

Art & Medicine

A group of 30 Duke students knew they could not share the same classroom for their summer Reimagine Medicine program because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Something lovely happened, however, in the two-dimensional realm of a Zoom video visit to the Nasher Museum last week. Thirty heads nodded and leaned in closer; hands fluttered, smiles widened.

“The ear that hears the cardinal hears in red,” a voice began, on the shared Zoom screen. “The eye that spots the salmon sees in wet. My senses always fall in love, they spin, swoon.”

Oil-painted animation swirled across the screen. The words were from a poem called “Swoon” by DJ Savarese, a nonspeaking autistic man who talks through a synthesized voice.

“They lose themselves in one another’s arms,” the voice continued. “And yet my senses often fail to let me do the simplest things, like walk outside.”

The students — all preparing for careers in healthcare — connected with each other by sketching each other’s faces, matching “selfies” on Google Arts & Culture and sharing insights into the physician/patient relationship. They really saw each other, despite the computer screens separating them.

“I was skeptical at first that we could recreate the ReMed magic virtually,” said Gair McCullough, program coordinator of Reimagine Medicine at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. “But the first week went really well.”

Last year, rising juniors and seniors in this innovative humanities-based summer fellowship visited the Nasher Museum in person. They toured the galleries and looked closely at art. A combination of elements came together for the successful virtual version of the class: Zoom skills have greatly improved over the past four months. And Nasher and Kenan staff have built a rapport for the past three years. Three of last week’s sessions were led by Ellen Raimond, Ph.D., assistant curator of Academic Initiatives at the Nasher Museum.

In one session, Ellen prompted the students to talk about an exercise in which they took turns drawing one another’s faces.

Sydny Long spoke up first. She realized she can be a little shy about eye contact and looking into a person’s face, she said—especially on Zoom. That shyness fell away as she started drawing another student named Sydney Aquilina.

“I found that as I was drawing her I was really focusing on her face,” Sydny said. “Not feeling shy about really looking at her, because I really wanted to capture her well.”

The experience taught her that it’s not bad to carefully study somebody and try to find the beautiful things about them, even their exterior, Sydny said. “So you can lock into what they might be feeling. Not be shy about really sitting in moments with them, moments of silence that are kind of awkward because you guys are just sitting there silently drawing each other. It makes that feel a lot less uncomfortable because you’re trying to lock in on something specific.”

The program continues until August 6. Through sessions in visual and performing arts, history, ethics, spirituality, mindfulness, writing, current events, as well as conversations with doctors and other healthcare professionals, students are invited to reimagine medicine and their role in it.


The students are so eager to engage—they come prepared and ready to try whatever we throw at them. They’re even attending the optional ‘bonus’ sessions—things like medical book club and hangouts with ReMed alums. We have more than 30 instructors and guest speakers, and they’re all bringing something unique to Zoom, which keeps things interesting. Will it work? We’ll see. I’m optimistic!

Gair McCullough, program coordinator of Reimagine Medicine at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics

The way one person is looking at another person can be influenced by a particular desire or impulse, Ellen responded. “What if we approached every drawing or every connection with someone as an opportunity, a positive opportunity, to know more about another person?” Ellen said. “Coming at it that everybody has value, something to offer, bring to the table.”

The exercise teaches the students to pay attention to detail, said student Clarke Shead. “Really get to know someone, and take the time to look at them and hear them or at least see them, so that you get the best benefit for both the physician and the patient.”

We’re all nervous and sometimes nervousness comes off as just shutting down, Ellen said. “Part of it is knowing that they are perhaps more worried and more anxious in that moment than you can imagine.”

The exercise teaches students to not look at a patient as an adversary but to acknowledge and respect that they know themselves and that they understand what is happening inside their body, Ellen said. Communicating and seeing, she said—“it’s all intertwined.”

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter