Health Humanities and Covid19, an interview with Ali Sloan

By Cuquis Robledo

Ali is wearing a gray-blue tank top and is standing by a stone wall with the water of the Atlantic in the background.

“I think what is special about the HHL and Health Humanities is that it is this different side of prehealth culture that isn’t toxic. It is one of community and it is one of love, and it is one of communication, honesty, openness, and vulnerability, and I would just love to see that permeate all aspects of campus because it has been one of the best things for me, and it’s shaped who I am today, it’s shaped what I have done. It’s shaped my Duke experience.”

Ali Sloan

As the Health Humanities Lab continues celebrating all of the its seniors as they embark on the next chapter of their life, the HHL also has taken the time to check in with these students during the pandemic and have these students to reflect on their final months at Duke during Covid19. I sat down, or rather Zoomed, with Ali Sloan, who majored in Neuroscience, minored in Chemistry and Psychology, and completed the pre-health track.

How did you get involved in Health Humanities at Duke?

Ali is originally from a town up in Massachusetts called Swampscott, which is on the north shore of Boston. The idea of medicine as a career was on the table when she arrived at Duke, but Ali mentions that it wasn’t until she took a Neuroscience class that discussed “how our mind and body are so connected” that she decided to dedicate her time to Duke’s pre-health track.

Ali first heard about the Health Humanities Lab through the Reimagining Medicine program (also known as ReMed), which is how she got to know HHL’s founder and former Co-Director, Deborah Jenson. Ali remembers how exactly she got hooked into ReMed between her sophomore and junior year. “I remember getting this email being like, Are you a non-traditional pre-health student?” Ali laughs, “I was like, ‘yes.’”

ReMed changed Ali’s perspective on medicine. She explains how ReMed focuses on Narrative Medicine and storytelling and how these methods can help future doctors learn about different patients’ experiences and humanize these experiences. They also answered questions such as:

What did we learn about this experience from the story that we not have otherwise known and how did that shape our understanding of the situation? How did that shape the experience for the patient as well as the typical care team?

She loved ReMed so much that she went back to ReMed as a staff member between her junior and senior year, participated in Deborah Jenson’s House Course called Narratives of Illness and Healing as a spinoff of ReMed, and then this past Spring 2020, she co-taught the same House Course.

“When I first took it, which was Spring 2019, the whole premise of it in general was kind of an introduction to Narrative Medicine and storytelling in medicine and how the two intersect. It explored different ways stories can be told… When we first took it, it was a little bit more literature based. So, then this past spring when we taught it, we kind of shifted the course to be the first couple of weeks kind of like an introductory to various mediums of storytelling, whether it’d be comics, or video games, or poetry, oral storytelling…and then all of the subsequent weeks explored various topics through storytelling.” For instance, one of the topics the class focused on this semester was abortion, and they used the graphic medicine novel Not Funny, Ha-Ha to humanize the themes and messages around abortion that may be too dense and harder to grasp in an academic paper.

Not only did Ali participate in the ReMed program, Ali was also involved in Duke Disability Alliance (DDA) her final year at Duke. She worked on one of the task forces known as the Curriculum Task Force with fellow senior, Bryan Rusch. The summer before her senior year, Ali had just finished up as staff with ReMed and realized that there was no set curriculum at Duke that focused on Health Humanities and Narrative Medicine.

“This is great and all but how are we supposed to carry this with us? This is so different from the environment at Duke from anything we could experience during an academic year. What are we supposed to do with that?”

Ali met up with faculty member of the Disability Access Initiative (DAI) working group, Jules Odendahl-James, to come up with ideas on how to get a curriculum going. Jules referred Ali to Marion Quirici, the head of DAI and faculty advisor of DDA, as Marion was in the process on working on building a Disability Studies curriculum with her students. Marion then introduced Ali to Bryan, who was also interested in curriculum development, and the two sat down and planned how to get more student input on a potential Health Humanities Curriculum and Program.

Ali appreciated getting to meet new people and getting involved with this new community. “I had never been a part of that community my first three years of school, and it was really cool my senior year to be able to see where my passion took me and all of the people I was introduced to along the way because of it.”

How have you been since Covid19 hit the US and has it affected the last portion of your senior year?

Ali admits that the beginning of the pandemic was really tough on her. “In the midst of a week, I learned that my dad was having neurosurgery, flew to Boston, learned that Covid was taking over the world, and that school was over. My dad had his neurosurgery, [I] flew back to Durham, took the MCAT, said goodbye to some of my closest friends. So that was a pretty jarring entrance into the world of global pandemic.” Luckily, Ali’s dad is recovering just fine.

And while Covid19 did not affect Ali in terms of finishing her classes, she feels that “none of the achievements and accomplishments really fills the void of all of the class memories and last experiences that were taken because of it… It’s just kind of ebbed and flowed, depending on the day, especially at the beginning.” Ali does mention she is fortunate that she did have her roommates to finish off the school year with.

What’s next for you?

Ali’s plans are to do Teach for America for the next two years in a 9th and 10th grade campus in Boston teaching special education. Then after that it will be medical school, potentially pediatrics.

In reflecting back on her experience, she is indebted to the HHL. “I’d say my biggest fear wa­­­­s that I wouldn’t be able to find a place in medicine where I could have a heart, and use it my advantage to my patients’ advantage, and be the kind of doctor almost leads with heart and passion and emotion.

“Something that we talked about in ReMed is that the [medical] culture can be toxic. I think what is special about the HHL and Health Humanities is that it is this different side of prehealth culture that isn’t toxic. It is one of community and it is one of love, and it is one of communication, honesty, openness, and vulnerability, and I would just love to see that permeate all aspects of campus because it has been one of the best things for me, and it’s shaped who I am today, it’s shaped what I have done. It’s shaped my Duke experience.”

Ali hopes to see in the future for the HHL that it is more accessible to students, there is more visibility of it and that it educates the next generation of doctors and breaks down the prehealth culture at Duke.

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