Literature & Medicine: From the Hospital
by Julie Stielstra ::: bio

This edition’s guest columnist is Julie Stielstra, Supervisor of Knowledge Resources at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois.


Things I Learned "the Hard Way" about Being a Liaison

Food is always a good thing, even if it’s just a bowl of M&Ms. It gives people something to do with their hands, and it makes the gathering feel more like a social pleasure than a class. When our food service people got confused and forgot to bring us our cookies, group members offered to bake for the next session!

Even when you distribute the complete schedule before and at the first session, if you don’t also send out a reminder message before each session, people will think it’s not happening. And dress it up a little! Provide little "extras" along with the readings: brief author bios or related articles from journals or the media, for example. If a story refers to a famous painting, bring a reproduction of the painting. Decorate the sign-in sheet with a graphic of Yersinia Pestis for The Plague. People enjoy these flourishes and it’s fun.

Attendance will fluctuate. But people will MAKE time to attend, and if they have to miss or drop out, they will call and apologize and explain and beg to be contacted when you do the next one. I don’t hound people about missing a session — we’re all busy! — but if someone misses two in a row, I get in touch and find out if it’s just life getting in the way, or something they felt uncomfortable about that could be addressed.

The person who is the most opinionated and outspoken in the group is the one who will attend every single session. If you get frustrated because this participant starts to dominate the sessions by talking too much, remember that she or he will also be the one who tells everyone how fabulous this group is. And, of course, talk with the facilitator and/or the Literature & Medicine coordinator at your humanities council! Together you will be able to find ways to address this issue with sensitivity and finesse.

The quiet person who rarely says a word will astonish you with a powerfully insightful observation. Don’t assume silence means disengagement…but consider a private word with those quiet people to be sure they feel free to speak up. If they don’t, talk to your facilitator about how to keep the forum open and encouraging.

Be daring with your selections: the book people dislike can generate the most vivacious discussions. The book you were afraid they wouldn’t like will be the one they end up saying was one of the best. And you will never be able to predict which is which! We had people threatening to throw Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down across the room; one person didn’t like Berg’s Range of Motion at all — till she read the final paragraphs. And I risked a personal favorite of mine — Saramago’s difficult, strange and scary Blindness — and was delighted that the group as a whole thought it was challenging, thought-provoking, and even worth a second read.

This may be the most delightful aspect of Literature & Medicine: the surprises. The unexpected stories that come from the participants, the sides of their characters you might never have seen, the experiences they share that broaden everyone’s perspective, and the oft-repeated comment that they love discovering a book they would never have picked up on their own. Be bold, be open, be creative…and be ready to be surprised!



From the Hospital is a column for program liaisons. Submissions may report success stories, describe challenges, offer advice or pose questions relating to organizing and/or participating in Literature & Medicine seminars. Additionally, the editor welcomes any responses or reactions to pieces published in this column. To contact the editor, send an email to


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Literature & Medicine has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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