Book club finds inspiration and humanity in novel places

May 15, 2015


It took a plot device for Kaitlyn Kortokrax's and Dr. Debbie Weber's paths to regularly cross at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore — make that serial plot devices.

The two of them have become acquainted as members of Mercy's "Literature and Medicine: The Humanities at the Heart of Health Care" program. As fellow book clubbers, they have shared personal reflections as well as professional experiences about everything from an author's style and use of metaphors to moral issues concerning the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and palliative care.

Mercy Medical Center Chaplain Sr. Carole Rybicki, SSF, standing, reads from Medical Readers Theater: A Guide and Scripts, while Cathie Kelly, a nurse practitioner, center, follows along at a meeting of the health center's literature and medicine book club.

Kortokrax, 27, holds master's degrees in English literature and education, and works as coordinator of the Prevention and Research Center, writing grants and other materials pertaining to cancer prevention and genetics counseling, as well as handling administrative duties there.

Weber, who was a psychology major and biology minor before attending medical school, has worked at Mercy for 31 years as a pediatrician and interim chair of Mercy's pediatrics department.

"When I moved to Baltimore two years ago and began working at Mercy, I missed the intellectual stimulation of analyzing books that I enjoyed in college," says Kortokrax. "So when I heard about this literature program, I jumped at the chance to join and connect with other employees here who share those interests along with the experience of working in the medical field."

Weber is a charter member of the group and an avid reader who joined the program when it began 11 years ago. "I enjoy being able to read classic novels as well as drama and contemporary fiction — things I didn't have much time to study formally as a premed and medical student," she says. "But I also appreciate the opportunity to meet people from all different areas of Mercy — lab technicians, public relations people, nurses, office staff — and hear their takes on different stories."

Medicine and the humanities
That is precisely the point of "Literature and Medicine," says Sr. Carole Rybicki, SSF, a chaplain at the medical center. She has organized and run the program for seven years in tandem with Ann Fisher, a secretary in Mercy's pastoral care department.

"Our goal is to spend time with the written word and our colleagues throughout the hospital in order to explore and understand Mercy's values and healing work in all our departments," says Sr. Rybicki. "We want members to become acquainted with each other as well as with the issues that define compassionate care."

Mercy's "Literature and Medicine" program was launched with a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council in conjunction with the Maine Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It meets monthly five times a year, from January through May, and follows a syllabus set up by Sr. Rybicki and Fisher based on group interests as well as suggestions from the Maryland Humanities Council and local facilitator Karen Arnold, a published poet who holds a doctorate in English literature and has taught at several universities.

"The Maine Humanities Council created this program in 1997 at a hospital in Bangor; it is now used by thousands of health care professionals working in hospitals in 26 states," explains Arnold, who received special training in Maine before she took over the Mercy group — Maryland's pilot program — nine years ago. (Since then, she also has led discussion groups for another Baltimore hospital as well as a veterans' group.)

"We take care to look at the members' annual evaluations as well when we choose our reading selections," says Sr. Rybicki. Of the group's 30 or so members, she adds, at least 15 are perennial "repeaters" with strong opinions about the plays, poems, essays and books they have been exposed to in previous years.

Essential reading
Many of the readings come from two anthologies provided by the Maine Humanities Council: Imagine What It's Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology with works by W. H. Auden, Anne Sexton, Susan Glaspell and others; and Echoes of War: A Literature and Medicine Anthology with works by Anne Brashler, Dr. Atul Gawande and others that is especially focused for soldiers and use in Veterans Administration Medical Centers.

Mercy's program meets from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in a conference room, where members share a light dinner provided by the medical center and homemade desserts before launching into their discussion.

"We have only a few rules in the group," says Arnold. "One is that everyone is addressed by first name only, so that office staff, for example, do not feel intimidated by doctors. The other is that 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,' since we want people to be open about sharing experiences."

Favorite selections over the years have included such works as: How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman; My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira; The Round House, by Louise Erdrich; The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy; The Final Exam, by Pauline Chen; Solar Storms, by Linda Hogan; Home, by Toni Morrison; The Woman Who Could Not Live With Her Faulty Heart, by Margaret Atwood; and most recently Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan.

Two of the all-time favorites, says Sr. Rybicki, have been works set in the Baltimore area: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, which involves Johns Hopkins Hospital; and Bringing Vincent Home, by Madeleine Mysko, a one-time nurse at Mercy in Baltimore who actually attended the group's discussion of her book.

Arnold says, "Mercy has a very defined mission which is reflected in every discussion we have. People here care deeply about healing; indeed they are the caretakers for the city of Baltimore," she says. "Mercy employees are trying as hard as they can to deliver the best level of respectful patient care possible."

Ripple effect
One of the stated goals of the Maine Humanities Council in initiating "Literature and Medicine," according to its website,, is to have "a significant effect on the way participants understand their work, their relationships with patients and with each other." The council also claims it is "an innovative, cost-effective way to improve patient care," with major progress in these areas: empathy for patients, interpersonal skills, communication skills, job satisfaction and cultural awareness.

With Mercy's annual budget of $5,000 for the program, that's a lot of bang for the buck. Members like Kortokrax claim it's one of the best bargains in town, "with a $10 registration fee that includes dinners and wonderful discussions led by a professional facilitator." An added bonus, Sr. Rybicki says, is that book club discussions "ripple out through the hospital" as members return to their particular departments and talk with colleagues about the meetings.

Indeed, Weber, who is retiring in December, says her membership in "Literature and Medicine" has been so enjoyable that she plans to petition Sr. Rybicki to let her remain an "honorary'' member of the group.

"This program has helped me so much with my professional practice, and the relationships I've formed here have transcended the book club," she says. "Now that I anticipate having more time to read, I need to convince them to keep me on."

Suggested readings to lay bare the human experience

The Maine Humanities Council claims its "Literature and Medicine" program is "the only national program that engages a cross-section of experienced health care professionals with the humanities."

Why is that so important?

"In our increasingly multicultural world, health care professionals can no longer rely on what they know from their own lives to understand their patients, who may be of different religious, socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds. Literature, however, offers vicarious experiences of worlds outside that of the reader, supplying full-bodied accounts of illness, death and human relationships in all places and among all peoples," the council says on its website,

Beyond its two anthologies, the Council offers reading suggestions in various literary genres to spark discussions for those working in the medical field. Here are a few of them:

Fiction: The Plague, by Albert Camus; The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien; The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka; Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen

Nonfiction: The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman; The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Poetry: "Case History," by Dannie Abse; Without, by Donald Hall; Rehab at the Florida Avenue Grill, by Veneta Masson

Essays: "Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses," edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer

Play: The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, by Seamus Heaney


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