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Seeing the unsung people “who care for us”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


Medical students tell the stories of people who make their own lives better—a custodian, a bus driver, and a cook.

Anyone who’s taken the Yale Shuttle to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven has likely crossed paths with Chris Ferguson, one of the drivers on that route. What passengers may not know is that Ferguson is a graduate of Hamden’s Paier College of Art who juggles his work schedule so he can indulge his passion for painting. Diners at Marigolds have probably encountered kitchen worker Lhamu Bhutia, without knowing that she’s a refugee from Tibet whose family once owned a restaurant in Nepal. Pearl Murphy, known to all as “Ms. Pearl,” is hard to miss. More than 6 feet tall, with an outsize personality to match, she works nights as a custodian at the medical school—one of the two full-time jobs the single mother has held for 30 years.

Their stories, as told by three medical students, were the focus of an inaugural narrative project sponsored by the Program for the Humanities in Medicine with the aim of drawing attention to unsung heroes of the medical school. The students’ narratives were published in a book titled The Art of Caring, and the students read from their narratives at a lecture in March. Ferguson and Murphy, along with friends and family, were in the audience for the lecture.

“We never pay attention to those individuals who care for us in environments such as this,” said Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor of medicine (hematology) and director of the humanities program, at the lecture in the Cohen Auditorium. “It is those individuals who allow us to live the privileged lives that we live.”

Over the course of three months first-years Matt Meizlish and Lorenzo Sewanan, and second-year Christine Sunu interviewed Murphy, Bhutia, and Ferguson and used their subjects’ own words to describe their lives—from Ferguson’s passion not only for art, but for the religion that anchors him spiritually, to Murphy’s amusement at her granddaughter’s attempts to teach her how to text, to Bhutia’s family’s odyssey from Tibet to India to Nepal to the United States. Guiding the students through the process was Alita Anderson, M.D. ’01, who impressed classmates and faculty in her student days with her portrayals of the workers and patients whose life stories she had gathered. At her first meeting with the students in January, Anderson described the process that would unfold, starting with deciding whom to interview.

“In this project one of the central focuses is that we interview people who often go unnoticed and are doing the work of caring for this community—people who are custodians, grounds- keepers, security guards—and play a big role in creating the community that you live in every day,” Anderson told the students. Over the next weeks Anderson, who lives in Atlanta, discussed the projects with the students during weekly conference calls.

The narrative project was the brainchild of Duffy; Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, associate dean for student affairs; and Forrester A. Lee, M.D. ’79, HS ’83, associate dean for multicultural affairs. “It was decided that we would call on Alita Anderson to be an artist and writer in residence,” Duffy recalled. “Out of that has come this remarkable manuscript.”

Read The Art of Caring here.