The Dahlia & The Mantis: Awakening to the Healing Beauty of Nature

by Mary P. Guerrera

With more time to putter in the yard during the days of the pandemic, I am discovering new ways to work with my hands (and feet) to care for the small grassy grounds surrounding our family cottage.

Using a good old-fashion reel mower, I walk at an easy pace while hand-pushing the rotating blades to their rhythmic swishing.  I am alert to other living beings along the way, and stop instantly if any are noted in my path. 

I’m surprised when a tiny frog jumps onto my toe.  I watch a bunny nibbling a leaf.  I see and hear the springy grasshoppers and winged song birds.  On quite days, the sound of the surf as the tide rolls in seems like the sea is breathing.

With my enhanced attention, I notice mole tunnels and vole trails.  And of course, the wild flowers, shrubs and trees, all with their unique micro-habitats. 

If a neighbor happens by, we chat as I rest.  Now in my second summer of planting dahlias, we share our anticipation of blooms and bouquets.  Taking a simple, root-like tuber and planting it into the dark earth is a process that engenders patience – tending to the area and waiting as months pass, until a green sprout finally emerges.  Even having studied the sciences, I am amazed at how a stunning flower emerges from such a seemingly mysterious process. And now we come to my first dahlia bloom of the season – a beautiful, intricately circular patterning of soft orangey glow.  As I stand near admiring the blossom, I notice another being’s presence too.  A large praying mantis is perched just above, seeming to honor its beauty — what an awe-inspiring pair!

The photo is of my actual dahlia bloom and the visiting praying mantis.  The photo was taken by my neighbor, Maggie Rose Regan

The mantis, a master of the art of being motionless, teaches us the value of stillness – and the attention and closer observation skills such a practice brings.  Indeed, my slowing down and ability to bring more mindfulness into my day-to-day activities has awakened so much more beauty and awe in my life, and reminds me of my interdependent relationship with Nature.

And connecting with our natural, or “other-than-human” world is showing to be beneficial to our health and well-being in many wild and wonderful ways.1,2,3,4.  So inviting a bit more stillness, or ‘human-beingness’ rather than ‘human-doingness’ into our lives, will likely open our senses to the beauty and awe around us, and perhaps cultivate more joy and gratitude along the way – as it has for me.

These experiences inspired me to create a new elective for our first- and second-year UConn medical and dental students during the fall of 2020:  Nature as Medicine.  For our pandemic weary and virtually exhausted students, I thought a shift in environment would be refreshing.  The course was thus designed with the following student learning objectives:

  • Directly experience & learn practices for Rewilding, esp. Forest Bathing;
  • Understand the physical & mental benefits that connecting with Nature has on human health & healing;
  • Enhance observational skills, which are fundamental to the practice of medicine & dentistry;
  • Learn mindful movement practices known to decrease stress/burnout, e.g. Qi Gong, mindful walking/Labyrinth;
  • Deepen their appreciation of the natural world;
  • Share their class experiences with course participants.

Offered as a daily, two-hour class, each gathering was held out doors during our schools’ one-week elective time frame.   Sessions included experiential activities such as mindful walking, sensory awareness, and gentle movement as we explored the trails of local woodlands and green spaces, masked and physically distanced.  We also practiced quite observation by finding a ‘sit spot’ for sitting in stillness for 15-20 minutes.  Opening one’s senses, noticing any movement, and nonjudgmentally bringing attention back to the present were key parts of this practice.  Our small group of twelve students were invited to share their experiences and reflections during each class via an opening ‘check-in’ and at the close of each session.  In addition, some brief readings and web-based resources were offered to stimulate further curiosity and provide evidence for Nature’s benefits, e.g., the scent/exposure to pine terpenes enhances immune system function in humans.3

The results and general feedback were remarkable, with overall enhanced well-being, improved sleep, and less anxiety reported by most all students.  The students also experienced first-hand the health benefits and value of human access to safe, green spaces – an important lesson as future advocates for their patients and communities.  As such, I am planning to offer the elective again this spring, and look forward to continuing to evolve a Nature-based curriculum.  As health professionals and educators seeking innovative ways of bridging both virtual and in-person learning opportunities, I recommend giving the nature-based learning ecosystem a try! 

Mary P. Guerrera, M.D. is Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, CT where she enjoys teaching medical students and residents.

The Value of Reflection in Clinical Teaching

By Patricia Stubenberg

“No words are ofterner on our lips than thinking and thought.”  – John Dewey

The teaching physician has opportunities for personal and professional growth through reflection and revisiting not only their own experiences in training and practice, but also their role as clinical teachers with medical students and residents.  Studies on reflection in teaching are abundant including, Freese’s work on Reframing One’s Teaching1, Dewey’s Art of Reflection2, and the theoretical underpinnings of reflective engagement, metacognition, and transformative learning.  The literature on reflection in clinical teaching is expanding through scholars including, Irby et al.3 and Sanders4.  This essay offers perspective on the value of reflective activity to advance medical education in training the next generation of physicians…
Read More »

Learning Anatomy: Between Fear and Reality

By Wessam Ibrahim

Learning Anatomy is a journey.  All medical students have some memories about their anatomy courses; some have good memories and some don’t.

It’s October 1995.  I was a first-year medical student at my medical school in Egypt.  I had never seen a corpse except in horror movies.  I was so scared and I really thought that those bodies weren’t real. The instructor started “Well, who would like to start dissection?”  I whispered to myself this guy must be crazy.  He continued: “You guys have to do it”. OMG, I guess I will have to cut that dead body. Surprisingly I volunteered.

Years were going so fast.  I graduated from medical school and decided to have anatomy as my career.  How did I do that? Again, I don’t know; but I know that I am so passionate about teaching medical students and my utmost joy is to see them succeed in medicine…
Read More »

Social Scientists in Medical Education: Important Contributors to the Educational Mission

By Bobbie Ann Adair White and Leila Diaz

When we began our careers in medical education in the early 2000s, our roles (Student Affairs and Admissions) were adjacent to those of educators but not truly intertwined in content development and delivery. We found there were opportunities to create and lobby for co-curricular social sciences content, but often these were ancillary to the basic and clinical sciences. However, in the mid 2000s content such as leadership, and interprofessional education began to gain traction, and the popularity of small group delivery methods grew. These trends opened doors for social scientists to contribute more meaningfully within the curriculum…
Read More »

Sacred and Profane: Balancing the sanctity of the human body with the mechanics of cadaver dissection

By Michael Dauzvardis

Often heard on the first day of anatomy lab:

“Oh— I’m so glad the cadaver doesn’t look real. It is gray and ashen.  The skin is wrinkled and the head is shaven. I can do this— I’ll make the first cut.”

In fall, in medical schools across the country, students begin their initial rite of passage on their journey to becoming a physician by undertaking the task of cadaver dissection.  It is the job of the anatomy faculty to assist the students in this profane act by teaching them how to use scalpels, long knives, saws, hammers, and chisels in the disassembly of the human body.  At the same time, it is also the job of the anatomy faculty, campus ministry, and other enlightened students to hit the “spiritual reset button” and remind all dissectors not to neglect the “human” in human dissection.  Most medical schools now have an opening (and closing) ceremony focusing on the sacredness of the human body and the unselfish gift and generosity of the donors…

Read More »

Landing the Role of a Lifetime

Hearing the Call:  A Feature on How Physicians and Medical Educators Came to Understand their Vocation

By Kerensa Peterson

Sometimes, a place just feels right, like home.  When I entered the Clinical Education Center for the first time, I immediately felt calm—an unusual feeling before an audition.  When I arrived, I made my way to a chair in the back of the room where I had a great view of Harvey, the heart simulator.  I wondered how he might fit into this audition scenario.  Two gentlemen walked in and introduced themselves as trainers to a room full of expectant actors.  I was hooked – from the moment they started to explain the role of a Standardized Patient.  I have never before had such a relaxing and intriguing audition… Read More »

What is the Future of Ethics Education in Medical Schools?

By Micah Hester

In 2004, Lisa Lehman and colleagues noted that “Despite widespread agreement that ethics should be taught [in medical schools], there is little formal consensus concerning what, when, and how medical ethic is best taught” (2004, 682).  Eleven years later, the Project to Rebalance and Integrate Medical Education (PRIME) group in its Romanell Report (2015) followed like Lehman when saying, “Despite broad consensus on the importance of teaching medical ethics and professionalism, there is no consensus about the specific goals of medical ethics education for future physicians, the essential knowledge and skills learners should acquire, the best methodologies and processes for instruction, and the optimal strategies for assessment.”  In other words, we know that the content, form, place, and number of hours in the curriculum devoted to the ethics (and related concerns such as professionalism and values clarification) varies greatly.  There are roughly 170 medical schools (both allopathic and osteopathic) in the United States and Canada, and there are roughly 170 different ways that ethics is taught to medical students across the continent…
Read More »

What’s Laremy Tunsil Got To Do With It? Professionalism, Social Media, and Medical Education

By Mark Kuczewski

On April 28, 2016, ten minutes before the NFL draft of college players was to begin, the Twitter account of Laremy Tunsil of the University of Mississippi, displayed a video of him wearing a gas mask and smoking from a bong.  Mr. Tunsil was a talented prospect widely believed about to become the second player drafted.  He had done an imprudent action at some point and, allegedly, a hacker made the video record available to the world.  A panic swept through the NFL executives making selections for their teams.  Mr. Tunsil was not selected second as predicted but was passed over until the Miami Dolphins took him with the number thirteen pick in the draft.  Because higher draft picks receive larger contracts than those drafted later, commentators estimate that the drop in draft rank likely cost Mr. Tunsil at least $8,000,000…

Read More »

What is a Doctor and What is a Nurse? As Patients, We Have the Answer

By Aaron Michelfelder and Fran Vlasses

As the health care professions struggle with defining a “doctor,” a “nurse,” and all of the other remarkable people comprising the health-care team, it is clear to us that the most important perspective is that of the patient.  Who better to contribute to the conversation than a physician and a nurse who are patients themselves?

The Patient (a physician) on “What is a Nurse?”

It was the outpatient nurse whom I nervously called for an appointment with the surgeon, and who compassionately found a reasonably soon appointment time. At the visit, it was her gentle voice that immediately calmed me, and she who corrected the medication errors in my electronic chart. Later, as I lay on the hospital gurney awaiting surgery, it was the pre-op nurse who recognized the fear on my stoic face. She was the one who squeezed my hand and whispered, “Everything will be alright.” In the operating room through a haze of machines, bright lights, sedatives, and scattered voices, it was the pacemaker nurse, whom I have come to know well over many years, who triggered in me a wave of relief as she deactivated my defibrillator in preparation for surgery.  Before the anesthesia, her face was the last I remember seeing, and hers was the first I saw when groggily recovering as she reactivated my defibrillator She who first relayed the good news of the successful surgery. It was the shaking hands of the student nurse, who attempted to change the IV bag, and his confident nurse professor who together, did everything right. At home, it was the surgical nurse practitioner who called to check on my recovery, and whose compassion and support bubbled through the phone.  All of these extraordinary individuals have different training, duties, and approaches to health care; and yet as a patient, I recognize each of them as a nurse…
Read More »

Illness As An Opportunity for Reflection: Enabling the Unseen To Be Seen

By David Leach

On March 1st my aortic valve was replaced. I received extraordinary care, was discharged on the third postoperative day, and am doing very well. When I arrived from the operating room to the intensive care unit I had an endotracheal tube, two chest tubes, an arterial line, a jugular vein Swan-Ganz catheter, two 14 gauge intravenous lines, a urinary catheter, various chest leads monitoring my heart rhythm, a pulse oxygen monitor and I have rarely felt better. In fact I was filled with joy. The Society of Thoracic Surgeons rates the 1300 plus cardiovascular surgery programs in the U.S. and I was happy to discover that my local thoracic surgery program was highly rated. I was grateful to have a disease that was fixable and a surgeon who knew how to fix it. I was also terrified at what I would have to go through to get it fixed. I did not anticipate joy…
Read More »