Ashlan Bishop, College of CharlestonAshlan Bishop was looking for the big picture. The more she explored and the deeper she dug, the more she found that art mimics life – and that, just as often, life mimics art. That’s when things started coming into focus. Now a premed student majoring in art history and minoring in Hispanic studies, Bishop is the poster child for an interdisciplinary education rooted in the liberal arts and sciences. And – whether in art or in medicine – she hasn’t stopped searching for the bigger picture.

“The College has been really good at allowing me to explore all my interests. It’s a good place to have diverse interests and explore them all – and how they connect – because of the liberal arts and sciences foundation. It’s given me many ways to learn, and it’s ultimately given me direction,” says the junior, who came to the College Ashlan Bishop, College of Charlestonbecause of its art history program. “The more I studied art history, the more I realized I loved the back story of the artist and the culture the work came from as much, if not more, than the visual piece. Everything I liked kept coming back to studying the life and circumstances surrounding a person. Medicine was what seemed like it would allow me free rein to understand a person. Being nosy with your patient is part of the job!”

Besides, Bishop continues, “medicine and art actually have many similarities. They both require careful analytical skills (to interpret elements of a painting or symptoms your patient relates), they both have very visual components and they both center around storytelling. Ultimately, I love people’s stories. You get that in art, obviously, but you can get that in medicine, too. Everyone has a story, and every sickness has a story. You just have to listen.”

Bishop began exploring the idea that a patient’s story is just as important as his/her symptoms in an Honors course titled Healing Narratives, co-taught by Kathy Beres Rogers, assistant professor of English, and Silvia Youssef Hanna, adjunct psychology professor and academic advisor in the College’s Academic Advising and Planning Center.

“It’s part of a general movement in medicine toward this liberal arts and sciences approach – a more holistic approach that takes into consideration culture, background and history more than just the symptom at hand,” she explains. “It’s more about considering a patient’s whole story, because patients just don’t get sick – there’s a reason for the sickness. Maybe it’s the food that’s available at their neighborhood grocery store, maybe it’s generations of a certain lifestyle. It’s more subjective. It’s about listening to the patients and really hearing where they’re coming from.”

Take, for example, the patients Bishop worked with at a MEDLIFE clinic outside Lima, Peru, where access to stores with healthful food was scarce and clean water even scarcer. There, many people had parasites from the water or GI issues related to diet. And, when one of Bishop’s patients, an infant named Ariana, wasn’t recovering from the surgery she’d had for her heart defect, it helped to know about the conditions at her home, including the heaps of trash that had accumulated there, the deteriorating walls and the insect and rat infestations. Once the clinic found out about the state of Ariana’s home life, MEDLIFE cleaned up the home and eventually built the family a new
house altogether.

“It wasn’t just strictly medicine that these people needed. Your whole life contributes to your health. You’re bringing more than just a sickness to your doctor, but a whole background. So there’s more than just medicine that goes into healing,” says Bishop. “Knowing how these situations in patients’ lives are affecting their health can help switch the cycle of care to a more sustainable system, where illness is prevented instead of simply treated following symptoms.”

And that goes for all patients – whether in Lima, Peru, or right here in the Lowcountry – which Bishop can attest to. As a Bonner Leader, she volunteers with Coastal Ashlan Bishop, College of CharlestonConnections, which works to find resources to help patients who come into the local emergency rooms.

“It looks at why they came into the ER in the first place – food, transportation, living conditions – and it links them up with organizations that can help make those conditions healthier,” explains Bishop, who served as the organization’s volunteer program lead last year. “Again, it looks at the whole story.”

In addition to her service work as a Bonner Leader (for which she also led a service trip to Washington, D.C.), Bishop is a William Aiken Fellow, serves on the executive board of her Alpha Delta Pi sorority, conducts research through MUSC’s DART Research Fellowship Program and is a founding member of the College’s own MEDLIFE chapter, which sent 17 CofC students to a MEDLIFE clinic in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, over the 2013 winter break and six students to clinics in Peru and Ecuador last summer.

“I’ve had a lot of great research, volunteer and leadership opportunities at the College,” says Bishop, noting that this is in no small part due to the William Aiken Fellows program. “The program has given me great advising on how to dig in and explore all that the College has to offer me, based on all my different interests. Every year they ask you about your personal goals and your diverse interests, and they work with you to come up with a curriculum that’s uniquely geared to you and what you want to study, so it really personalizes your college career.”

And – with her alternating semesters of art history classes and science classes– Bishop’s college career is certainly personalized.

“I like it because it’s a good balance. This way I don’t get too burnt out on either end,” she says. “The liberal arts and sciences education allowed me to pursue experiences, blending the humanities and medicine, that have solidified for me that validity of this odd combination of interests.”

It has, in other words, shown her how to look at the big picture.

Photos by Gately Williams