Isabel Del Valle's bio Synapse

Eye Witness: Literature & Medicine in Argentina:
Interview with Isabel del Valle

Isabel del Valle ::: bio, by Lizz Sinclair ::: bio

In Argentina, the benefits of engaging health care professionals in the medical humanities—both as they are being trained and once they are practicing—are just beginning to be explored. A desire to prove the benefits of this approach prompted Isabel del Valle, Director of Humanities at Pallium Latinoamerica, (a medical institution of palliative care in Buenos Aires) to search for a program that she could adapt. Her research led her to the Literature & Medicine program, and then to the Literature & Medicine Training Institute in 2008.

I recently interviewed Isabel to learn more about her hopes for integrating medicine with the humanities in the training and working lives of health care professionals in her country. I also asked her about South American authors she would suggest for Literature & Medicine.


LS: Isabel, I know that you are a Professor of Literature and coordinate the humanities program at Pallium Latinoamerica, a medical institution of palliative care. What spurred your interest in starting a Literature & Medicine program in Buenos Aires? And how did you find out about the Literature & Medicine program?

IdV: I have always had a strong interest in connecting the disciplines of literature and medicine in order to help health care professionals increase their understanding of the many dimensions of pain and suffering experienced by those who are sick.

The medical-patient relationship is a narrative encounter between two people with different approaches to the same problem. I consider literature to be an important tool to train doctors to listen and better understand a patient's subjective speech. This, in turn, improves doctors' clinical practice. So, after years working by myself in this area, I started looking for a formal and systematic way of implementing a literature-based program for health care professionals that could work in many different kinds of institutions. During that search I ran across the Maine Humanities Council’s Literature & Medicine program, which seemed to be doing what I wanted to do.

LS: Can you tell me a little about the medical humanities in your country? For instance, are courses in the humanities, literature or writing required in medical or nursing schools?

IdV: Medical humanities are still not well developed in Argentina. For a long time they were relegated to bioethics. But in the last few years, many health care institutions have showed interest in incorporating literature into their studies. Fundación Mainetti (La Plata) is a medical institution that is a pioneer in medical humanities in Argentina. José Alberto Mainetti (PhD) is the main proponent of this effort in Argentina (he is a disciple of Paul Ricouer in Paris, George Canguilhem and Pedro Laín Entralgo in Spain). Leopoldo Acuña is another important name in medicine and literature.

Medical humanities is also becoming more accepted by other institutions. For example, medical universities now include subjects related to the fine arts and the artistic process as a way for patients to once again find meaning in their personal life and world-view after they have been affected by disease. Some medical colleges offer literature as an optional subject. Asociación Médica Argentina (AMA) offers courses and conferences with a humanistic perspective. And Hospital Italiano has a department in Narrative Medicine.

LS: When and where do you think you will start a Literature & Medicine program? Has the idea been well received?

IdV: My first steps in the developing of the Literature & Medicine program have been welcomed. Hospital Bonorino Udaondo in Buenos Aires is involved in the program and we have agreed to start in April 2009. It is a public institution with 70 years’ medical tradition, specializing in gastroenterology. CEMIC (Centro de Educacion Médica e Investigaciones Clínicas), Hospital Alemán and Sanatorio Otamendi are also prospects in Buenos Aires.

LS: We know of a lot of wonderful readings for the Literature & Medicine program, and always want to find more. South America has such a rich literary tradition—what works would you recommend from South American authors?

IdV: South American and, more specifically, Argentine literature is varied, and includes narrative, poetry and drama. I’ll only recommend titles involving narrative right now—both fiction and non-fiction. Here are some significant authors and works that would be of interest to those in Literature & Medicine:

  • From Argentina
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • “El inmortal” (short story, 1947)
  • The protagonist is an immortal man. This condition forces him to live forever with all the casualties, sufferings, fears and torments that affect all men. As his life became a tragedy, he begs to become mortal.
  • “Funes, el memorioso” (short story, 1944)
  • The protagonist has an overdeveloped memory. This exceptional condition affects his discernment, making it hard for him to function.
  • Julio Cortázar
  • “La salud de los enfermos” (short story)
  • A family tries to protect a woman from knowing about her son’s death. Eventually, when she is about to die, she thanks them for their silence. A model of a “wall of silence.”
  • Roberto Arlt
  • “El jorobadito” (short story, 1933)
  • This is about the cruelty experienced by physically deformed people, and the resentment and anger they feel at their rejection by society.
  • Ernesto Sábato
  • El túnel (novel, 1949)
  • Feelings of isolation and the neglect he experienced in childhood help drive the protagonist to kill the woman he loves.
  • Horacio Quiroga
  • “La meningitis y su sombra” (short story, 1917)
  • The repressed feelings of the protagonist surface while suffering from delirium.
  • From Colombia
  • Gabriel García Márquez (Premio Nobel)
  • El amor en los tiempos de cóleram (Love in the Time of Cholera, novel, 1985)
  • Love’s duration is threatened by aging, death and physical deterioration. Love´s energy resists these negative forces. Erotic desires become allied to death and disease, because love and death are very close to each other. Love’s symptoms are similar to those of disease.
  • From Brasil
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Verónica quiere morir (novel, 1997)
  • A young Slovenian woman lives a boring life in a country where nobody knows about her native country’s history. She decides to commit suicide as a call for people to take notice and to examine their consciences about events in forgotten countries such as Slovenia. Doctors prevent her attempt to die.
  • From Chile
  • Isabel Allende
  • Paula (autobiographical novel)
  • This centers on Allende’s personal need to bring meaning to her daughter’s death.

These are just a few of the many rich works from South America that would be appropriate for discussions.

LS: Is there anything else you would like readers to know? Anything you wish I'd asked you?

IdV: I am proud to be associated with the Maine Humanities Council and to establish a beachhead for this kind of work in my country.

LS: We are very excited to be working with you, too.

Read more about the first two L&M sites in Argentina.

Eye Witness is a column devoted to the stories of Literature & Medicine participants. We invite you to submit short essays about your experiences in the seminars, and to share your reflections with a larger audience.


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