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On a bright, cold Friday morning, a handful of nurses huddle around a pair of portraits in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. The portraits depict Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, a pair of wealthy Salem residents of the eighteenth century. When directed to describe the pictures with adjectives, the nurses call him “stoic” and “elegant” and her “opulent” and “soft.”

Then they’re told that the Fitches made their wealth in the slave trade. “Does this change your opinion of them?” asked the program leader. The nurses all nod yes.

Relating this analysis to nursing, one nurse says, “You can look at and assess your patient, but you can’t really know someone until you talk to them and ask them questions.”

“And you can’t be biased when you talk to them,” adds another. “You have to treat them no matter what.”

The group of nurses are all new hires at North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) participating in the Paint to Patient program. New nurses have the opportunity to hone their clinical reasoning skills through art discussions at PEM. This morning is the last meeting of a six-session program for new nurses at NSMC, focused on training, discussions, and just generally checking in with other new nurses. 

“One of the best takeaways from this program is being able to sit in a room with people who are new—it’s nice that someone’s checking in, and making sure we don’t feel abandoned,” said nurse Sandy Laing. She says that it’s comforting to be able to ask, ‘Is this what it’s like for you?’ to other freshman nurses.

Ellen Soares, PEM’s Guide Program Manager and the leader of today’s program, said that she has been leading this program with nurses two to four times a year since 2014. “Overall, it’s been a positive experience,” said Soares. “When we pick works to focus on, we choose ones that relate to nursing—ones depicting potential scenarios these nurses may encounter throughout their careers.” Today’s session focused mainly on the new Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibit at PEM, depicting pivotal moments in early American history. “There’s lots to talk about here,” she added.

“It’s inspiring to see folks enjoy the museum and have that ‘aha’ moment when they understand how looking at art can translate to nursing,” said Soares.

When we look at art, we pause to take a minute to really see what we’re looking at. Throughout the program, the attendees learn that we can use the visual literacy we practice to look at art to also look at the rest of the world.

“There really are a lot of parallels [between nursing and art],” said Laing. “Nursing is both an art and a science—it’s like the art of observation.”

“We do this job because it gives us a sense of purpose, and it’s nice to see a visual display of that purpose,” Laing added. “We should do this every Friday!” she laughed. 

North Shore native and nurse Phoebe Magee also expressed her fulfillment with the program. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and now I take my children here,” said Magee of PEM. “So it’s fun to be coming here now in a different capacity.”

“Art connects people from all walks of life, and medicine is like that too,” said Magee. She described art and medicine like great equalizers. “Everyone is treated with the same forty-five medicines. A wound is a wound.” At the end of the day, we’re all human, and that’s as evident from looking at art as it is from studying medicine.