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Northwestern University

What did you do with your arts and sciences degree?

Gwen Erkonen ’88 became a physician who uses the narrative arts to heal


Sometimes, well-meaning adults encourage students who are interested in everything to choose between two supposedly distinct paths: art or science.

Gwen Erkonen made that choice, only to realize later in life that she hadn’t had to choose at all.

The daughter of a nurse and a physician, Erkonen says she grew up “speaking medicine.” Until high school, she pursued science and the humanities with equal zeal. Medicine was one of many fields she assumed was open to her — until she sought out a chemistry teacher for help with an assignment.

“‘You’re so good in English, just focus on that. Women are better at that,’” Erkonen recalls being told. “So I took that to heart and thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can’t do it.’ And I never took another science class again.”

Erkonen truly did love literature, though, and pursued her humanities classes at Northwestern with relish. She majored in history and looked forward to a career as a teacher. “The one thing I always knew I wanted was to make a difference in kids’ lives,” she says.

As a special education teacher, Erkonen saw many students who lacked the ability to communicate effectively. That prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in speech and language pathology. An instructor encouraged her to consider medical school. Erkonen demurred, though the seed was planted. She began to take the science prerequisites, “just to see how it went.”

"I never gave up"

Her life continued to unfold. She spent a year in Ghana, working at a clinic for postpartum mothers during her husband’s Fulbright fellowship. She had her first child after she returned to the United States. She finally enrolled in medical school at 34. Ten years later — at 44 — she was a practicing physician.

“Life kind of got in the way,” she says. “But I never gave up on it.”

Along the way, while pursuing a postgraduate degree in medical education, Erkonen discovered the field of narrative medicine — an approach to healing that incorporates the personal stories of patients to improve care. “I realized, ‘That’s what I want to do with my training,’” she recalls. “That respect for the story is what makes a skilled physician. Using the humanities to help students become better physicians has become my passion.”

Today, Erkonen is a physician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, training medical residents in the art of narrative medicine. She is also a writer who publishes creative nonfiction about her work in pediatric critical care.

The only choice that mattered, she says, was the decision to be true to herself.

“It’s so important for students to know that if you do what you really love, it doesn’t matter what your major is,” Erkonen says. “The key is to read and think and write clearly. That’s what a good liberal arts education does for you. If you can articulate your ideas, it all falls into place.”

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