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Waco doctor, professor stresses the human in medical humanities

Waco doctor, professor stresses the human in medical humanities

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The way Dr. Lauren Barron tells the story, a literary encounter shaped her medical career in valuing the life stories of patients.

Now as head of Baylor University’s medical humanities program and holder of a prestigious new endowed chair, she turns her energies to shaping future doctors and health care workers to become listeners of those stories.

“It’s all about the human experience because we’re taking care of humans,” she said in a recent interview shoehorned into an ever-crowded schedule. “How are you going to take care of humans?”

That takes experience, empathy, listening skills and a holistic view of a patient beyond a summary of symptoms, information not neatly handed to a doctor in an examining room. “When human beings are sick, they’re not always at their best selves,” Barron noted.

The Waco doctor, professor and mother knows that firsthand. She has cared for newborns and their moms and attended people in their final days. She has years of practice as a doctor at Waco’s Family Health Center, her own private practice and Hillcrest Community Hospice, and years of experience teaching college students.

“What you learn in medical school doesn’t tell you about a person. It tells you about the parts of a person,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from the nurses I’ve worked with, the social workers, the occupational therapists, the physical therapists.”

For some 20 years, Baylor’s medical humanities program has challenged its students to consider the human side of care through a strong liberal arts curriculum with classes that run medical threads through such academic disciplines as literature, religion, sociology, philosophy, the arts and ethics. It has grown to some 255 majors and 80 minors, becoming a Baylor selling point for students considering college.

Barron recently became the first person named to hold the new DeBakey endowed chair in medical humanities, formally the Michael E. DeBakey, Selma DeBakey and Lois DeBakey Endowed Scholarship in Medical Humanities chair, created by a $2 million gift from the DeBakey Medical Foundation of Houston. An endowed chair uses the interest accrued on a designated endowment to cover the salary and costs of the faculty member holding the chair; at Baylor, it takes at least a $2 million endowment to fund a chair.

It’s the latest endowed chair created under of Baylor’s Give Light campaign and it carries the prestigious name DeBakey for famed Houston heart surgeon Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. DeBakey pioneered innovative procedures such as cardiac bypass surgery and with Dr. Denton Cooley performed the first human heart transplant in the United States. His sisters Selma and Lois were professors of scientific communication at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, stressing the importance of teaching doctors critical thinking skills and clear communications in their training.

The chair endowment is the DeBakey foundation’s latest support of the Baylor medical humanities, with more than $1 million given in the past to fund student scholarships.

Barron’s Baylor colleagues say she embodies the qualities that the medical humanities program hopes to impart to its students: high standards, compassion for patients, respect for their dignity and a passion for her work.

“She’s a wonderful heir to the program,” said retired Waco cardiologist Michael Attas, who started the Baylor program in 1999. Attas himself was so drawn to explore the spiritual dimension of medicine and healing that, some 20 years into his cardiology career, he took up studies at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin and became an ordained priest.

Dr. Bill Hoy and Barron are the department’s two clinical professors, practicing doctors who also teach.

“Being a colleague of Lauren Barron is not for the person who does not have a lot of energy,” Hoy chuckled. “She’s not a pushover. We probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but she has a lot of respect for the work I’ve done.”

Like Barron, Hoy has decades of experience in patient care, hospice and palliative care. In his time in Waco, the program’s assistant director is always meeting someone who had her as a family doctor.

“If they’ve been here 10 or 15 years, there seems to be a good chance that they’ve been a patient,” he said.

Both her love for patients and passion for her work rub off on students, Hoy observed.

“She has this incredible love of patients transmitted in almost an osmotic way,” he said. “Students just absorb the love of patients from her,” he said. “And she loves taking care of the underserved. I remember she spoke to one of my classes and told them ‘We owe a debt of gratitude to the poor that we can never repay. So much of medicine has been learned from the poor.’”

Even today, Barron continues to see patients at the Family Health Center’s clinics, getting her Baylor students involved there to make them aware of a broader community.

A native Houstonian, Barron was the first in her family to go into medicine, which allowed her to combine a love of science with a desire to help others.

“Medicine involved your heart, your head and your hands,” she explained. She graduated from Baylor with a psychology degree, the school’s liberal arts core grounding her future medical studies. Barron then studied family medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center, now the UT McGovern Medical School.

In the emotionally draining grind of medical school, Barron found a revitalizing inspiration from literature. A visit to a Houston used-book store led her to the work of Oliver Sacks and Richard Selzer, medical doctors who used narrative in talking about their patients, humanizing them in the process. The light that had guided her decision about becoming a doctor flickered anew in Barron’s mind and heart.

A residency at Waco’s Family Health Center followed medical school and after eight years there, she entered private practice in Waco for another eight years, where she was when Attas persuaded her to become a lecturer in Baylor’s medical humanities program in 2011.

One of those classes she taught and still teaches, “Philosophical and Literary Perspectives on Medicine,” was the medical humanities ‘s spiritual and philosophical ancestor. Three of Baylor University’s legendary teachers, philosophy professor Kay Toombs, nephrologist and epidemiologist Bill Hillis and English professor Ann Miller, created and taught the interdisciplinary class in the 1990s. The seed they planted grew into one of the country’s first collegiate programs in medical humanities.

“It took me 20 years to gather the tools I needed to teach that,” she said. “Now we can give students a toolbox. We’re sending them out of here with a toolbox.”

Barron became the program’s director in 2016, succeeding philosophy Professor James Marcum. She sees the program as an ideally place to lay foundations on which medical and health care training can be grounded.

Baylor’s identity as a Christian university allows the medical humanities program to address the spiritual dimension of health and care. Barron, her husband Dale and sons Luke, 23, and Samuel, 19, are members of DaySpring Baptist Church, and she said one’s faith practices can help a healthcare provider deal with burnout.

She also pointed out Christianity’s ancient call for care of the sick and needy led to the first hospitals and continues today.

Baylor College of Arts and Sciences Dean Lee Nordt credits Barron’s leadership and passion for continuing the program’s upward trajectory in her years as director.

“She showed a skill set and an enthusiasm that convinced the DeBakey Foundation. She took it to a whole new level with her passion and her energy,” he said. “She deserves a lot of credit.”

Barron said she’s deeply honored to hold the first DeBakey chair and sees its importance in freeing up funds to possibly expand the program’s faculty and reach even more students.

The program doesn’t reach just doctors in training, either, noted Hoy, who sees its graduates in various fields of health care and even in public policy. At a time when technological advances are shaping much of medicine, it’s important, if not crucial, not to forget the human side of healing, he said.

Nordt said Barron personifies that idea.

“She’s a magnet for the students, particularly students driven by a passion for people,” he said. “Our students crave that and she’s the perfect person to show that.”

Barron sees it as telling a story of one’s skills and experience to shape others in formation.

“I feel like I’m teaching to my 20-year-old self,” she said.

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