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Nurturing better listening, more caring

It's really awesome to listen to people tell their own stories and have the rest of the people in the group be moved by them," says Joseph O'Donnell, M.D., a professor of medicine and DMS's senior advising dean.

Joe O'Donnell, at left, leads a recent Communities of Care discussion.
Photo: Alexios Monopolis

O'Donnell and Kathryn Kirkland, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine, are leading a new community discussion group called Communities of Care. The program is funded by the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

The group meets once a month to discuss short stories and poems and watch portions of films, all dealing with a specific medical theme—such as the patient's perspective, the doctor's perspective, or dying and illness. Participants include various community members: retirees, hospital administrators, nurses, social workers, yoga teachers, and a filmmaker.

Following a meal, the group sits in a large circle as O'Donnell and Kirkland lead discussions of the week's assigned readings— such as stories from Jerome Groopman's Measure of Our Days and essays on altruism from A Life in Medicine, which O'Donnell coedited. Another week, the group watches part of the film The Doctor, in which William Hurt plays a surgeon who treats his patients with sarcasm and disrespect, until he himself is diagnosed with throat cancer and discovers what it is like to be a patient. The surgeon's motto in the film—"Get in, fix it, get out"—triggered a lively discussion. "We talked about fixing versus healing, versus serving, versus helping. You fix something because it's broken. You serve somebody as an equal," explains O'Donnell.

His philosophy is that as health-care professionals and patients read and discuss literature together, and share their personal stories, they become better listeners. "We're trying to produce communities of care," he says. "How do we establish community? How can this literature group be a community? How can we live in community?" M.C.W.

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