English undergrad and Medical school: Alumnus Matt Strauss

Matt Strauss
A UWaterloo English faculty member was caring for a family member at a local hospital, only to discover their family member had been assigned a doctor who was a UWaterloo English alumnus. Synchronicity or saturation? Read on to find out how Matt Strauss went from Science to English, to med school.–JLH

JLH: What made you decide on UWaterloo and on English?
MS: I was a very hard-nosed math and sciences type in high school and chose Waterloo because it seemed like the hardest-nosed math and science institution. (I was 15 at the time and hardly recognize that kid today)

I started undergrad in Honours Science and took John North‘s Shakespeare class as an elective. I remember getting 100% on my biology midterm, 105% on my chemistry midterm and a C- on my first paper for John North. Kind of ridiculous logic: but I remember having the realization that maybe the arts weren’t airy-fairy bird courses after all. Also, the lectures were enthralling.

I knew I wanted to go into medicine and figured I would end up being a science-type for life. It seemed like my undergrad was an opportunity to explore a whole new realm of human knowledge that I clearly didn’t have any sort of a grasp on. So I switched my major to English.

JLH: What was the most memorable or influential part of your undergrad English degree?
MS: I’ve already mentioned John North’s lectures. They were quite something and I can still quote some of his aphorisms today. He also hosted an “ask me anything” session at the end of the course (15 years before Reddit popularized the mode) that was exceptional.

Fraser Easton ran a Race and Literature course where we read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. So much of that book and that course influence my thinking on these issues. In fact, just today, I was thinking about the book in reference to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation commission. I’m glad to have developed that sensitivity sooner than later.

JLH: When did you know you wanted to do medicine?
MS: Since age 13. Under-publicized fact: humanities majors actually have a higher rate of acceptance to medical school. I never saw the switch as deleterious to my career intentions.

JLH: When I interviewed Alok Mukherjee, he talked about how English gave him a different perspective as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. Do you think having English has done the same for you?
MS: I think all physicians will eventually realize that a lot of what we call “medicine” is, in fact, theatre. 98% of the time, very little additional information is gleaned when a doctor puts their stethoscope on your chest. And if white coats aren’t very obviously a costume, I don’t know what is. I don’t say this to be disparaging of either medicine or theatre; something is not disingenuous because it is theatrical. The rituals and the costumes hold meaning and purpose in medicine just as the theatre has meaning and purpose. As an intensivist, my patients and I spend a lot of time at the end of the line together. Communicating that sort of thing compassionately and effectively could never be possible without the theatrical aspects. I think all those plays I read brought me to this perspective sooner than most.

JLH: Finally, what are you reading for fun?
MS: Descartes’ Meditations. Long story.

Thanks to Matt for participating. You can find him on Twitter at @strauss_matt.


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