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Reading is fundamental

March 1, 2007 - Today The Middletown Press (CT) ran a story about Rose Quiello, who is both a veteran nurse and a professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University. Shannon Becker wrote the piece, "Professor, nurse to lead novel discussion series." The article uses a short series of talks Quiello has planned at a local library to bring out links between Quiello's two careers, and between health care and literature generally. The piece gives the public a good profile of a literate, articulate nurse. Quiello rightly suggests that looking closely at literature can improve nurses' powers of clinical assessment and empathy. We would go even further: because textual analysis can help us understand and respond to human behavior, it can help nurses become better advocates for their patients--and themselves. We thank Shannon Becker and the Middletown Press for this helpful, interesting piece.

The article focuses on Quiello's planned discussion series at Middletown's Russell Library, and what the series suggests about the links between literature and health care. The article includes quotes from Quiello and librarian Suzanne Elliott. There is some background on Quiello, but little fluff, and little to criticize in its portrayal of nursing. In the analytical spirit of Quiello's own work, we will note that the piece's headline arguably suggests there is something inconsistent or at least remarkable about being a "professor" and a "nurse." Of course, there are thousands of nursing professors. It might have been better to call Quiello an "English professor." And the piece is more vague about her nursing than about her literary career. We learn that she got her masters in literature at Wesleyan and her doctorate at the University of Connecticut, and that she now teaches at Southern. We don't learn where she got her undergraduate degree in nursing (merely that she was accepted at Yale's nursing school, presumably for some kind of graduate work), or any details of her current work as a home care nurse.

The piece does quote Quiello as saying that she's "been blessed with two incredible fulfilling professions," and that she's "been a practicing nurse for 30 years and a professor of literature for 20 years." She explains why she chose to pursue further education in literature: "I thought I had enough nursing education to allow me to do the kind of work I wanted to do in that field and since I had an equally strong passion for literature, I decided to pursue my education in English."

The article says that Quiello's own dual focus "yielded her exploration of the relationship between literature and medicine." The series, "Literature and the Nature of Illness and Loss," features three discussion sessions: "Knowledge and Power," based on the play "Wit" (which the piece oddly fails to note is by Margaret Edson); "Life Cycles," based on Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich; and "Fate," based on Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Quiello offers a short explanation for the inclusion of each of these, noting, for instance, that Tolstoy's work "takes us through the whole grieving process," and that Sacks's book on neurodiseases brings out "the strength of the human spirit in the face of illness."

Quiello reportedly wants to "explore the strong link between literature and medicine and what it is like to confront illness, to care for the sick and to grieve," and to "engender new approaches to critical thinking about illness and more importantly the human condition." At the end of the piece, Quiello explains how literature might help people in their responses to illness and death:

Few topics will resona[te] for the entire community, but I think literature and medicine is one of them. ... One of the pleasures of reading is that it allows people to come out of their own shoes and walk in someone else's. That is the heart of empathy. By examining the notion of illness in literature, it gives us fertile opportunity to express our feelings on grief and suffering and try new ways of coping.

Of course, this method of developing empathy could also be of great help to nurses and other health professionals. Indeed, quotes from Suzanne Elliott, the community services librarian in charge of adult programs, bring that out:

There are a whole list of authors--Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Eliot--who have incorporated illness and medical conditions into their writing, and today, a lot of medical schools are combining the studies of humanities and medicine so aspiring doctors can better understand their patients' feelings as well as their medical conditions. The belief is that it helps humanize doctors and makes them more compassionate.

We do find it interesting that the piece includes this discussion of efforts to "humanize" physicians through literature, but nothing about nurses, when the piece is mainly about a nurse and literature professor. What about nursing schools? Have Quiello or others taken steps to increase humanities study in nursing programs? Or is there a feeling that nurses are already "compassionate" enough?

Of course, even if that were so, we would argue that the other benefits of textual analysis are more than enough to justify including some such work in nursing programs. In fact, the piece includes good quotes from Quiello that directly address how the study of literature has made her a better health professional:

People see nursing and literature as dichotomous, but I think they are very much the same. ... When I approach a patient, I try to figure out what is going on beneath the symptoms that I see. I try to figure what is causing the symptoms in order to get to a cure, which is exactly what I do when I examine a text. I try to go a little deeper, examine the subtexts and try to figure out what motivates the characters to do and say the things they do. It makes the stories incredibly rich, and by becoming a deeper more critical reader, it has also made me become a much better nurse.

This is a great point. Of course, in suggesting that literature and nursing are "the same," Quiello is probably overstating it a bit. Presumably few readers are able to actually intervene to improve the lives of the characters they meet in books, though they could perhaps use their literary "assessments" to become more informed and able "care givers" in their real lives. Moreover, we hear how literature helps Quiello be a better nurse; does nursing help her understand literature?

We would also argue that looking closely at literature and other texts can help nurses be better advocates for patients and themselves. The more practice nurses get in analyzing and responding to text, the more practice they will get in analyzing and formulating responses to what is going around them, from their patients' conditions, to their own working conditions, to the way they are regarded and treated by society as a whole. For instance, this could help nurses assess media and other statements that ostensibly support their work, but that may in fact promote damaging stereotypes, such as that of the virtuous but unskilled angel or the handmaiden. Of course, we realize it would not be easy to incorporate significant amounts of such training into many current nurse training programs, which must work hard to convey increasingly complex technical care information with limited resources.

We commend Shannon Becker and the Middletown Press for this piece.

See the article "Professor, nurse to lead novel discussion series" by Shannon Becker in the March 1, 2007 edition of the MIddletown Press.