How art and community connection can shift perspectives in medicine
As a neurologist, Suvendrini Lena, MD, FRCPC, never imagined she would be on the front line of a fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. But she chose to answer the call in March 2020 at the Women’s College Hospital (WCH), which needed physicians to test people at its COVID-19 assessment centre.
Dr. Lena, who had never before taken a nasal swab, performed the procedure more than 1,000 times, at the hospital and in mobile clinics for some of Toronto’s most vulnerable.
“My work brought me into relationship with extraordinary people who make a social safety net out of their own compassionate work,” Dr. Lena says.
This work tapped in to Dr. Lena’s long-held interest in peoples’ stories and creative outlet as a playwright. She is inspired to perhaps write about the experience and explains [in the rest of this article] how art can rouse empathy and compassion, which are needed in medicine.
Testing for COVID-19, connecting with communities
Dr. Lena, who holds a master’s degree in public health, has tested people for COVID-19 in long-term care homes, encampments for the precariously housed, and in shelters for those struggling with mental health and addictions. Since October 2020, she has been involved in school testing in collaboration with Toronto Public Health, where members of the WCH mobile team worked with schools in hot-spot communities to set up family-friendly testing and vaccination clinics.
“Shelter workers, teachers and front-line workers have had to pivot, and pivot and pivot again. Working alongside them has been remarkable and quite humbling. It is my hope that these cross-sector collaborations made necessary in COVID times, can be sustained beyond the pandemic to strengthen civil society and really support communities,” says Dr. Lena.
Testing for COVID-19 has brought her in close contact with many people. No matter how busy the clinic is, every test begins with a conversation. “It is an invitation to share a small part of the story we are all living,” Dr. Lena says. “The first moment of connection is so important, and it’s really important that it be genuine — that the person who you’re going to provide care to knows that you see them as an individual, and that you actually care about their unique part of this story.”
Medicine meets theatre
As the child of physicians, Dr. Lena always had medicine in her DNA. She chose to study Neurology but also took an interest in the arts, writing a play called The Enchanted Loom for her fourth-year residency research project. It was about a journalist’s experience of psychosis and epilepsy resulting from a traumatic brain injury sustained as a political prisoner in the Sri Lankan Civil War, which was in its final year in 2009 when the play was written.
“I needed a way of thinking about that war, the meaningless suffering it has caused for Sri Lankan Tamils. I started to think about the scars of war, an intergenerational trauma, like a material thing, a cerebral scar that causes intractable seizures,” Dr. Lena says. “I thought about healing — surgery — if you cut the scar out, does the trauma and its shadow dissipate? That is the central metaphor of the play.”
After The Enchanted Loom, Dr. Lena penned another play, Here Are The Fragments, which looks closely at the physician-as-patient and the impact of racism in medicine on an individual physician. She conducted research in the form of interviews with clinicians and people living with schizophrenia, and read editions of old newspapers found in the archive at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where she splits her time in the Neurology department. The play was produced at the Theatre Centre in 2019.
Holding up a mirror to the profession
“I worked very hard to create works that are both nuanced and faithful to the complexity of medicine and accessible to a lay audience,” Dr. Lena says. “Other physicians and neurologists as well as psychiatrists, have seen themselves and the conflicts they navigate daily portrayed in the work. It is my hope that physicians experience compassion for themselves in seeing the work.”
Writing has become a way for Dr. Lena to reconcile the personal and the professional in medicine. She says she hopes to write about her experiences with COVID-19 testing and perhaps create a dramatic work soon.
“[Our] training facilitates a professional, rigorous and standardized interaction between doctor and patient, but it is achieved through the suppression of the physician’s own personal subjectivity,” she says. “As a writer, I am interested in excavating that subjectivity and giving it play, exploring the messy and often profound moments when personal and professional overlap.”
“I also see art as a medium for social change. Art opens space for difficult conversations. It invites compassion, empathy and shifts in perspective. We need this in medicine. I’m very consciously committed to using theatre to create these spaces for physicians.”