A doctor’s mission: Showing why literature matters to medicine

Feature story about Dr. John Harper, an SMU alumnus who combines his practice of medicine with a love for reading.

Staff Writer

During four years of medical school, Dr. Susan Oh kept herself from reading books other than those related to her studies.

“Even though I wanted to, it would be like, ‘No, I need to further my knowledge and be the best physician I can be,’” says dermatology resident Oh, 42.

Then she met Dr. John Harper, the Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas cardiologist whose sixth annual “Literature + Medicine” conference will be held Tuesday. And she began to realize that her love of the written word could add an unexpected dimension to being a physician.

“Reading,” says Harper, who has an English degree from Southern Methodist University, “makes us better people, and better people are better doctors.”

In his Friday morning Coffee With Cardiology teaching sessions, which Oh attends even on her days off, Harper doesn’t just take residents and medical students on rounds and discusses cases. He also brings music for them to absorb and essays, poems and short stories for them to read — or, he says, to “lean in and listen” as he reads aloud. He accompanies his students to museums and invites them to his home to discuss literature.

“I try to incorporate this into every time I talk to them,” Harper says on a recent Friday. “Today, Dvorak’s New World symphony was playing. It was the musical piece taken to the moon by Neil Armstrong because it reflected the new world, and we talked about electrocardiograms. All week long, I think about what I’m going to talk about that morning. I’ll reread it; make sure it’s in the right context. I’ve been doing this a long time, so it’s intrinsic to who I am.” . . . 

Harper, 69, had his first taste of that intermingling as a boy in Pecos. His father — “my hero growing up” — had health issues that sometimes caused him to be in a great amount of pain. Harper remembers the doctor coming to their family’s home, driving up in his Buick, wearing a suit no matter the time of day or night, carrying his black bag.

“He would put his hand on my dad’s shoulder,” Harper recalls, “and say, ‘It’s OK now, Frank. I’m here now, and I’ll stay until you are better.’ And then he would. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ It was the intersection of science and compassion at the bedside.”

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