Professor Sarah Vittone (NHS) Shares the Value of “Cura Personalis” in the World of Health Care

By Shelby Gresch, SFS'21
November 8, 2019

Sarah Vittone, Assistant Professor with the Department of Nursing and Ethics Consultant with the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at the Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, carries a pager with her everywhere she goes. At any time of day she could get a notification from the hospital about an ethical dilemma facing the medical professionals charged with caring for patients. She takes her mission to bring heart and soul to the hospital, a place that can often feel lacking in gentleness and warmth, very seriously. Can we operate on people who have no safe place to recuperate? Can we tell a patient’s presumed father that a genetic test to see if he was a match to be his son’s liver donor uncovered that he isn’t actually the father? Everyday Professor Vittone uses her tender yet dauntless nature and decades of experience to answer the unanswerable. 

On Monday night, Professor Vittone gathered with students in the Red House to discuss her experience and interest with justice in the health care system. With a Master’s degree in Clinical Ethics and Religious Studies, Professor Vittone teaches future doctors, nurses, and healthcare administrators the essential nature of Cura Personalis in the medical field. As she sees it, Georgetown has a comparative advantage of treating the whole person, not just their illness. To instill this lesson in her students, she brings in speakers to talk about imbuing the medical field with equity, such as placing clinics in low-income neighborhoods and spending equal time with all patients. She guides her students to recognize that they can’t make assumptions about patients based on a first glance.

To help her students learn this lesson, she uses a method pioneered by art historian Amy Herman when she trained New York City police officers. Professor Vittone demonstrated this method with her dinner guests at the Red House as well. They were instructed to note what they saw in the Painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley. 

“It reminds me of historic religious paintings, the way the figures are arranged,” answered a student.

“Yeah it definitely seems religious – and I see all the little crosses in the background too!” added another. 

After more discussion, Professor Vittone revealed that in fact the painter had intended no religious undertones when he created it, and had actually never seen a shark. “But did you see how quickly everyone agreed that it must be a religiously-based painting once one person mentioned it? And the shark looks very little like an actual shark, but no one commented on its strange appearance. We just accepted it for what it was.” In this exercise, which Professor Vittone carries our regularly with her medical students, the dinner series attendees appreciated the lesson of critically questioning their observations before jumping to conclusions. 

Although none of the dinner guests were in the medical field, Professor Vittone reminded them of the benefits a liberal arts core and a Jesuit perspective will bring to any line of work. The values of Cura Personalis and Faith & Justice will serve us all as we grapple with questions large and small. Much of Professor Vittone’s work lies in understanding the gray zone between right and wrong, and her teaching at Georgetown centers around training others to navigate that space. The dinner guests left feeling inspired, and maybe with more questions than answers. But that’s just what the dinner series is for: the opportunity to ask questions of inspiring professors whose answers guide them towards more questions they never thought to ask.

Stay tuned for more Dinner Series to come! Students can join the Red House Student Network listserv here to be the first to receive information about signups and stay up to date about all upcoming Red House events. You can also visit our Facebook page for event updates from the Red House.

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