Interested in the humanities? Here’s how one medical student found her vocation in medicine
For this blog post, I interviewed Emmy Yang, a student on extended scholarly status at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Emmy is a Master of Theological Studies Candidate at Duke University and a Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellow . This interview was conducted to shed light on Emmy’s journey and the possible means by which aspiring medical students can continue to cultivate their passion for the humanities while undertaking a rigorous curriculum in medical school.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Were you involved in any humanities-related activities/academic work during undergrad?
I would describe myself as a fairly typical medical student. I majored in biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. I had done some biomedical research on campus. I had taken a few humanities courses in anthropology, history, and English as part of the general curriculum, but I was very focused on the sciences in college. Around the time I entered medical school, I started thinking about larger questions of life and the centrality of religion in people’s lives. These questions were raised by a friend who had recently become Christian. It was then that I became more interested in religion. In my first and second year of medical school, I started to appreciate the importance of religion in guiding my sense of purpose in medicine. In my first or second year of medical school, I started looking into programs that would cultivate my budding faith with my future vocation in medicine. If you told my undergrad self that I would be studying theology, I would have believed it to be a major detour, but that has certainly not been the case.
2. In medical school, you were involved in organizing an interfaith symposium on the importance of spiritual health. What advice do you have for pre-medical students seeking to gain admission to a medical school on pursuing their interest in the humanities?
Don’t be afraid to hold on to the things you love, whether that be in the humanities, social sciences, or the sciences. I think we have a tendency, particularly in academia, to bracket ourselves, to silo ourselves into increasingly specialized “areas of expertise.” Sometimes, this is necessary. We have specialists in medicine to help us better define a field in order to master a specific subject area and make innovations in the field. But I think human beings are much more complex than that. I had a roommate in medical school who studied Classics in undergrad - she still quotes from Aristotle and Plato. Look at every educational opportunity as a gift and as a means for intellectual and spiritual growth. These educational opportunities are fruits of the subjects that we study that we cannot see from the outside. We have to continually cultivate our minds and our souls. It’s important to explore other disciplines so that when we become medical students and residents, we have wisdom and habits that will sustain us for years during our medical training and beyond.
Actually, if you look at the history of medicine, there were many physicians who were extraordinarily accomplished polymaths. The Greek physician Hippocrates and the Jewish physician Maimonides were philosophers and theologians. This is all to say that there is great overlap between various fields. The practice of siloing medicine, I would say, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
3. As part of your future career in medicine, how do you envision being able to cultivate your love of theology with your career as a physician?
Good things take time to cultivate. It involves carving out time, space, and people with whom I can continue to engage in conversation regarding these subjects. It also involves having bedside reading where I can still be thinking and chewing on theological questions. With anything that is life-giving to oneself, one can only try to make time for it.
The illusion in medical school is that there is never enough time and that our studies always demand more time. Our studies are very demanding. But I think in order to continue to cultivate relationships and the subjects we are drawn to, we have to give time to them.
In the long term future, I don’t know where life will take me, but I do anticipate really prioritizing the spiritual self in my care for patients. Among our training community, I also believe that there is a real deficit of care for the health care professional as a whole. Neglect of the health care professional’s spiritual self is contributing to the erosion of our sense of humanity and our belief in the profession as a calling. There are real, hegemonic forces that render health care as a commodity and this subsequently renders those who work in health care as interchangeable cogwheels in a machine. I personally believe that such an approach to the health care trainee and professional neglects their humanity and their personhood.
4. How do you think the study and application of theology enriches physicians’ approach to patient care?
Practicing medicine is more than a job. In order to see that, we have to engage in questions about what constitutes a meaningful life. What do we do about the fact that we will all die one day? In medicine, there tend to be a lot of questions about death. That is the point of departure for physicians engaged in theological questions. Without any certainty, theology takes these questions about death, dying, and suffering seriously and aims to provide people with a sense of purpose, peace, and hope. Having a sense of purpose can come from medicine itself, but can also come from engaging in the humanities and theology. We need to be reminded that we are more than our test scores, clerkship evaluations, and our abstract numbers. Nothing affirms this more than scriptural texts.
5. As a medical student, why have you decided to take a scholarly year at Duke to study theology?
I was in my third year of medical school and I already decided that I wanted to take some time from medical school before going to residency to do something different and to merge my interest in my faith with my vocation in medicine. It was a difficult decision, because I didn’t know what it would look like financially and academically. I felt very much an outsider going to divinity school. Even though I had doubts, I still had an intuitive sense that I needed to be at Duke to take the opportunity to explore my interest in theology. I took the leap of faith and committed to the program. I absolutely do not regret it. It has been the most formative experience of my life. Part of what makes this experience so incredibly life-changing has been the opportunity to step out of the fast-paced culture of medicine and slow down to cultivate my value system and my spiritual self.
6. What is the Duke Fellowship in Theology, Medicine, and Culture at Duke Divinity School?
I didn’t know anything about theology prior to entering medical school. I’ve learned during my medical school journey that theology is broadly the study of divinity and God. This fellowship has helped me better understand how theology informs my care of the suffering. The fellowship is designed for those who have vocations in health care to have a formal academic engagement with theology. We study theological works and are immersed in a community of like-minded individuals. The fellowship has a spiritual formation component and so students engage in Christian spiritual practices while being a student at Duke. There is a practical component as well; I volunteer at a faith-based free clinic in Durham, NC as a medical interpreter . One of the goals of this fellowship is to help health care professionals think critically about the problems we see in healthcare today, whether that involves tackling the commodification of health care, disparities in access , or medical student/resident burnout. The fellowship provides a training ground for medical professionals to apply their spiritual principles to address some of the larger, systemic problems we see in health care today.
Sign up to get regular admissions tips, advice, guides, and musings from our admissions experts delivered straight to your inbox. No spam, we promise.