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From hypothetical to reality: UTMB’s historical specimen exhibit engages history and humanities, brings interprofessional simulation to life

Apr 19, 2018, 19:26 PM by By Dr. Arlene Macdonald, assistant professor, Institute for the Medical Humanities; and Dr. Paula Summerly, research project manager with the John P. McGovern Academy of Oslerian Medicine
Students gather in Levin Hall for the What's Wrong With Warren debrief. Photo Credit: Jerome Crowder.
Each year in January, “Warren” enters the UTMB learning environment. Close to 1,000 first-year students from all UTMB schools—Medicine, Nursing, Health Professions and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences—engage in a fictional interprofessional case study entitled “What’s Wrong With Warren?” 

Warren Bernard is a right-handed, 16-year-old boy who was diagnosed with meningitis and meningococcemia, an infection caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. Students are tasked with understanding the roles and responsibilities of their own and others’ professions in a complex case that involves emergency care, differential diagnosis, pharmaceutical decisions, eventual amputations, community health threats, the science of vaccination, and a comprehensive recovery plan. Warren’s ailments and struggles existed only as a hypothetical construct: a carefully written tabletop exercise that students encountered on paper—until this year.

On Jan. 23, the exhibit “Making Warren Matter: Pathological Bodies, Histories, Humanities,” moved the Warren case closer to reality. Pathological specimens from the UTMB historical collections showcased the spread of the meningococcus bacteria, the associated damage to brain tissue, the pathos of amputated limbs, and the fragility and wonder of human tissue. The specimens were installed on the third floor of the Ashbel Smith Building (or Old Red as it is also known). Senior students of the medical humanities graduate program were trained to serve as exhibit guides while those participating in the What’s Wrong With Warren case visited the exhibit.

In the space of an hour, more than 230 students discovered the richness of UTMB’s historical pathological collection, the importance of the Old Red building to medical training, and the value of engaging history and humanities in interprofessional training. Students lingered over the specimens and engaged in thoughtful discussion with the medical humanities students. They also completed a questionnaire asking them to consider simultaneously the “matter” of Warren, the ethics of specimen collection and display, and the history of the academic health sciences in which the specimen collection and the Old Red building played such a vital part. 

Their responses to the exhibit highlighted the ability of the historical specimen collections to present the tangible realities of disease states, amputations and the bodies that bear these afflictions. Students related an intensified interest in the case: “Fascinating… human examples make the case come alive a bit more,” said one student. They also spoke to a heightened empathy: “It helped me to visualize what Warren went through,” one wrote. Specimens moved them to look inward; many mentioned sadness, and one denoted: “There are many diabetics in my family, so to see an amputated limb was impactful.”

At the What’s Wrong With Warren debrief, the medical humanities students addressed the question of collecting and displaying specimens in all of its historical complexity. Graduate students’ nuanced facilitation of the exhibit, the sheer power of the specimens, and the enthusiastic engagement of the student audiences were a resounding affirmation that history and humanities have an important place in the training of tomorrow’s interprofessional health care teams. 

The “Making Warren Matter” exhibit was coordinated by Dr. Paula Summerly and Dr. Arlene Macdonald, with the assistance of Shelley Smith, director of Interprofessional Education, and Dr. José M. Barral, associate professor of neuroscience, cell biology and anatomy, and biochemistry and molecular biology. Dr. Judith F. Aronson and Mark V. Deming from UTMB’s Department of Pathology also provided assistance.