Meet Kayla Simms, a med student who has helped form H.E.A.L., an organization helping doctors use the arts to navigate the difficulties of their work.

“Cracked” by Tharshika Thangarasa; inspired by “Cracked – New Light on Dementia” (H.E.A.L. organized a trip for medical students to see this play, and this student painted this afterwards)

Kayla Simms is an MD candidate in her third year of studies at the University of Ottawa, with interdisciplinary roots in the University of Guelph’s Arts and Sciences program. She strongly values the healing power of creative exploration, and is the founder of the student-led initiative Humanities Education, Artistic Living (H.E.A.L.) – creating space in medical education for the arts and humanities, as a means of self expression and reflection amongst medical trainees.

Carrie: Welcome to Artist Strong Kayla, when did you first realize the arts were important to your life?

Thank you, Carrie!

The arts have always played a huge role in my life; but it took me some time before I realized just how important they were. I can’t remember my life before extracurricular art classes or drama programs, but I do recall stopping them in high school. At the age of 17, I admitted to my Grade 12 English teacher that I would not be pursuing “the arts.” That same night, I admitted to my father that I had been contemplating a career deviant from “the sciences.”

I remember believing that in order to become a physician, this somehow meant that I would be forced to give up the arts. It took me 6 months in a strictly science University program to see that art served more than just comic relief in my life. I switched to study the Arts and Sciences at the University of Guelph and was made “whole” through the unseeing of arbitrary lines of compartmentalized knowledge. It was during my time at Guelph that I came to understand medicine as an interdisciplinary endeavour, existing at the epicentre of both art and science, in order to comprehend the most vulnerable moments of the human spirit.

Meet Kayla Simms, a med student who has helped form H.E.A.L., an organization helping doctors use the arts to navigate the difficulties of their work.

Creative Spirit Kayla Simms
(photo credit: Jonah Greenbaum-Shinder)

Carrie: Do you describe yourself as an artist?

Yes, definitely.

Carrie: What is H.E.A.L.?

Humanities Education, Artistic Living (H.E.A.L) is a student-driven initiative, creating space in medical education for reflection, dialogue, and self-care via the expressive arts and health humanities. H.E.A.L. promotes the humanities as a cornerstone of medical education and practice; empowering medical students to find and give expression to their own voice as a source of strength and resiliency. H.E.A.L. addresses the need for a safe space (abdicated of evaluations or grades) to connect with the shared experiences and emotions of medical education and training, while reiterating the human connection amongst peers.

Carrie: What inspired your creation of this project?

Medical education presents its learners with demanding levels of responsibility, environments of genuine human emotion, and exceptional standards of professional conduct. Students often begin medical school unprepared or emotionally inexperienced to cope with the challenges of medical training and practice. Though one might anticipate medical students’ empathy and humanitarianism to rise throughout the four years medical training, studies report medical students experience substantial decline in empathic traits across the training process, accompanied by an increase in stress, burnout, and depression. These outcomes not only deteriorate medical student self-care, but are associated with professional ramifications that threaten the core values of medical altruism, and contribute to attrition from medical programs.

It became clear to me, mid-way through my training, that the traditional coping mechanism of objective desensitization was insufficient to nurture the full complex emotional and spiritual plurality of the person I was when I began. I remember coming into the hospital one day and learning that a patient who had been under my care for 3 weeks passed away the previous evening on the operating table. The physician staff immediately handed me the details of another patient, to “replace” the one we had just lost as if the human component of the experience was somehow detached from our role as healers. I went home that night and set my textbooks aside for a night of watercolour. I felt vulnerable and wanted to engage in a medium that would connect me to the present. All the emotions I had suppressed to get through the day came back and flooded my art with the release I so desperately needed. The bedside is not a unilateral experience; we are all human.

Carrie: What do you hope comes of your work with H.E.A.L.?

Empathy is all about perspective-taking. Practicing medicine asks that we embrace our shared humanity and vulnerabilities at the bedside. It’s largely an unteachable skill, and every student takes a different path to it, but good medicine is undoubtedly more than a set of technical decisions and pharmaceutical/surgical interventions. It demands empathy, insight, trust, and an understanding of the human experience of suffering. Aside from the numerous pedagogic outcome benefits, including reflective, empathic and analytical skills essential for providing good care, enriched arts/humanities exposure also promotes wellness and healing. It’s about drawing on the creative and intellectual strengths of diverse disciplines in pursuit of medical educational goals, while informing medicine through unique insights into the human condition.

Meet Kayla Simms, a med student who has helped form H.E.A.L., an organization helping doctors use the arts to navigate the difficulties of their work.

“Take Pause” by Kayla Simms; inspired by the need to take a step back from medical training and indulge in the arts

Carrie: How has the artist in residence program worked in collaboration with medical students?

At the University of Ottawa, we are fortunate that our medical school formally recognizes the benefit of humanities training. H.E.A.L. is a part of the student-led arm of a comprehensive inter-linked humanities curriculum at the Faculty of Medicine. The Artist-in-Residence, Marie-Claude Charland, provides an outstanding contribution to the Ottawa medical humanities community. Through art-making, Marie-Claude believes that nurturing a personal connection with the natural world can help us more fully connect with our own hearts and transform our vision of the world. She engages students with the arts on a weekly basis, and has provided us with amazing on-campus opportunities to “create for the sake of creating.”

Carrie:  Why are the arts important?

Medical students are placed under evaluative microscopes, inundated with standards of academic poise and pressured to uphold the guise of perfection. Art reminds us that we are human beings. Exploring the arts and humanities enables a multidisciplinary holism, imperative to healing ourselves and those around us. It complexes the brick-and-mortar of physical medicine with those characteristics that make us uniquely human, and without it, medicine would simply fail to exist.

Meet Kayla Simms, a med student who has helped form H.E.A.L., an organization helping doctors use the arts to navigate the difficulties of their work.

“Sound Heart” – by Amina Allalou

Carrie: Who/what inspires you?

One of my mentors, Dr. David Grynspan, is a pediatric pathologist. We founded H.E.A.L. together. First, as a conversation about modern medicine’s emphasis on professional-detachment. Then, as an idea to encourage and foster creative expression as a means of authentic communication and to cultivate another form of healing amongst medical trainees. His line of work is devastating; performing autopsies on deceased children. But he has found the beauty in the terrible, and uses poetry (to use his own words) to be “present with students on a journey of desensitization and trying to provide an anchor for the retention of ‘humanity’.” I am constantly inspired by his resilience and humility.

Carrie:  How do you define Creativity?

By not defining it!

“Art reminds us that we are human beings.” (Click to Tweet)

Be Creatively Courageous: What is one art activity you can (or already do) go to when you are facing difficulty?

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