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Doolittle’s “Life Worth Living” Course Instills Valuable Lessons For All

September 14, 2020
by Julie Parry

What makes a complete physician? What can be done to form the heart and the mind and the spirit of medical students? These questions and more were adapted into a Yale School of Medicine (YSM) course, taught by Benjamin Doolittle, MD, MDiv, associate professor of medicine (general medicine) and of pediatrics; and director, Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program.

“This class grew out of my passion. Our medical students made it into this very special medical school. There is this complicated feeling of, ‘Do I really belong here? How do I survive here? Oh, my goodness, everyone's so smart. Do I really belong?’” explained Doolittle. “So then, the compelling question for a Yale medical student is, ‘What next?’ And this is true for residents too, ‘What next? What does my life look like? What kind of person should I be? What kind of person do I need to be?’" I've always wanted to have some kind of process by which to think through these questions.”

So Doolittle took these ideas, combined with an adaptation of an undergraduate class through Yale Divinity School, and created the curriculum in a small group discussion format. The applied philosophy summer course addresses questions of meaning in the medical profession and reflects upon one’s own practice, exploring the question “What makes a life worth living in medicine?” The course debuted last summer at YSM with seven students. This summer, 12 students took the course.

Second-year medical student Chelesa Fearce minored in philosophy as an undergraduate and was drawn to the course.

“I'm interested in internal medicine and psychiatry, so this class really helped me a lot because applied philosophy can be used to practice psychiatry I feel, and this class really helped me basically understand people a bit more. Why people think and do the things they do, which I think will help me become a better therapist or psychiatrist,” Fearce said.

Both second-year medical students Sofia Lapides-Wilson and Tianna Zhou hope to pursue Palliative Care.

Zhou said, “The mission of palliative care was something that we touched on in this course. To get even more philosophical about this, it seems like empowering others to make decisions according to their values is one of the best ways to achieve something like a complete dissolution of the self, which is an idea that bridges multiple philosophies or religions. I think, in the Bible it's, die onto the old self or die onto the self. And then in Buddhism, in meditation, there's that kind of intention. And so, from getting some familiarity with those philosophies and those ideas, I feel like that's one of the ways where my life would feel like it would be the most worth living is to be in service of others.”

The course read original texts and seminal works from Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, as well as contemporary thought leaders and evidence-based research. Additionally, they looked at the role that money, power, justice and social prestige play in shaping the medical profession and how recent events impacted medicine.

I think the class is a very compelling exercise in reflective practice because we physicians, we love to be tough enough, strong enough, together enough, but it takes a certain kind of moral courage to look within, to be vulnerable, to challenge one's beliefs,” said Doolittle. “So this class, in this very friendly supportive way, is opening up about our preconceived beliefs, opening up our hearts, and challenging ourselves in a way to help us cope with this mad, mad, wonderful world. Everybody can do that.”

The seven-week course was broken up into the following topics:

  • What makes a life worth living in medicine?
  • What do I value?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What does a life worth living feel like?
  • What does it mean for life to go well?
  • What role does suffering, injustice, and failure play in the good life?
  • What is your vision of a life worth living?

Claudia See, second-year medical student and aspiring cardiologist, took the class as a great opportunity to explore the different faiths within her family.

“I'm Christian and my extended family is Buddhist. I grew up immersed in two different faiths in my family, and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn more about that. And also to learn how to engage in perspectives outside of my own. I definitely learned that, and I'm very grateful to Dr. Doolittle for modeling how we can celebrate and talk with others who might have a different view on the world than us.”

How to celebrate and talk with others who have a different world view is a valuable lesson for all. To learn more about Doolittle’s work and the course, read his bio.

The Department of Internal Medicine at Yale is among the nation's premier departments, bringing together an elite cadre of clinicians, investigators and educators in one of the world's top medical schools. To learn more, visit Internal Medicine.

Submitted by Julie Parry on September 14, 2020