Courtney Campbell initiated the medical humanities program at OSU in 2010 in part because a former student of his, who had been shadowing in an ER as a part of her physician’s training, had experienced her first patient death. There was no place or space in the ER to process her emotions, so she sobbed in a linen closet instead. 

Campbell, a philosophy professor, the Hundere Chair for Religion and Culture and a medical ethicist himself, became passionate about creating a certificate program that would give students in health fields and beyond the foundation to understand medicine beyond science — the human element — so they could not only process their own experiences, but transform their patients’. 

Campbell, who helped write Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, collaborated with Melissa Cheyney in anthropology, as well as English and history of medicine faculty to get the idea off the ground. The certificate’s first recipients graduated in 2012. In 2019, 150 students were enrolled. 

“The certificate gives students the opportunity to learn about the human experience of illness and disease throughout history, cultivate the virtues of empathy and compassion, practice mindful meditation, exercise skills in cultural literacy and diversity, and engage in critical and practical reasoning,” Campbell says. 

In short, these are the qualities, along with medical expertise, that make great doctors. 

The certificate is a gateway not only to further studies and various careers, but gives students a sense of social responsibility, along with the knowledge of how critical it is to engage with the people they’re helping.  

Tiffany Gardner (’14) was one of those students. From an early age she was inspired to become a doctor, at a time when her mother underwent several brain surgeries. Gardner witnessed a neurologist holding her mother’s hand and soothing her fear. “I saw how much he comforted her and I wanted to be able to have that impact on people. I thought it was a really special thing,” she says.

A graduate in microbiology with the medical humanities certificate, Gardner went on to attend medical school at OHSU. She says her experience in the humanities made her a more competitive candidate. 

“Being bright in science is a given for medical school. But I think what programs are really looking for are people who want to serve patients. Because at the end of the day that’s what we’re here to do. That’s really what brought me to medicine and is what continues to drive me.”

While at OHSU she participated in curriculum development along with other medical students, focusing on issues she’s passionate about, like social injustice in medicine and how public health structures impact individuals’ health. 

“I found that my experience in the humanities was very relevant,” she says. 

It’s also relevant when it comes to being with her patients at challenging and even dire times. As an undergraduate Gardner wrote her Honor’s thesis on spirituality in medicine, and the necessity of connecting with patients when they need it the most. 

“People invite you into their lives at their scariest or worst times. And you can have a huge impact for better or worse depending on how you treat someone. Critically ill patients want someone to talk to, and I have loved having those conversations,” she says. 

Gardner is now a resident in Denver, Colorado, and plans to be an internist. 

Of Dr. Campbell, she says, “He exudes compassion and he’s passionate about teaching and his students. He invigorates us to learn more. He sells the program through his mentorship alone.” 

CLA’s Medical Humanities Certificate is now fully available online. To learn more visit: https://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/online-degrees/undergraduate/minors/medical-humanities/