Letter to the Editor: How We Heal

Emily Schapira1

1Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
Address correspondence to: Emily Schapira

Artist: Hena Ahmed

Artist: Hena Ahmed

Amid the flurry of experiences of first year, like learning the anatomy of the heart and exploring the biochemistry of the cell, I received an unexpected assignment: to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting and report back on what I observed. It felt like a heavy responsibility, even an intrusion, to journey into the lives of strangers as they met to discuss intimate matters, but one Saturday evening, I found myself sitting in the back row of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting convened in the cafeteria of a local college. I heard ten individuals chronicle their stories of alcohol abuse, addiction, and ongoing recovery as subscribers to the Twelve Steps. Most cited their ritualistic attendance of AA meetings and their close relationships with their sponsors (more senior AA members who serve as personal mentors) as the most important parts of their lives.

The AA meeting demonstrated the power of one of the oldest and most underutilized modalities of healing: speaking to other human beings face-to-face – “human essence encountering human essence,” as Scharff describes in his paper Essence to Essence [1]. Despite the obvious differences in the speakers that took the podium that evening – young and old, men and women, Latino and African American and Caucasian, the professor and the recent high school graduate – all were able to find strength through sharing their experiences of addiction and through celebrating their collective commitment to recovery.

As a medical student, I sometimes catch myself believing that any given illness will eventually be cured – or at least controlled – with the next innovation in medical technology.  In certain respects, this notion is reinforced as I spend these semesters studying the mechanisms of life-saving antibiotics or learning how portable ultrasound can speed all manner of diagnoses. But the AA meeting highlighted a parallel to this paradigm of healing, a parallel that Beckwith refers to as “caregiving” in his paper Redefining Suffering and Illness [2]. When it comes to alcoholism and other illnesses like depression, diabetes, and obesity, successful care may be rooted in committed care and supportive communities just as much as or more than it is in scientific innovation.

About the artist: Hena Ahmed is a second year medical student at Harvard Medical School and a self-taught oil painter. You can visit her at www.patientsandpaintbrushes.com.


  1. Scharff S (2014) Essence to Essence. Harvard Med Stud Rev 1: e4.
  2. Beckwith N (2014) Redefining Suffering and Illness. Harvard Med Stud Rev 1: e8.