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Health Science with a Soul

By Megan Jonas

Just over a decade ago, two Whitworth students asked Mike Ediger if they could share an idea with him. The kinesiology major and biology major explained that they didn't feel Whitworth offered an academic home for students who wanted to go into health professions. They desired a new major that would better help them achieve their goals of becoming a physical therapist and a physician assistant.

With a doctorate in health sciences, Ediger, then a professor in the kinesiology department, was just the person for the students to approach. He and other professors had long been dreaming about creating a health science program at Whitworth. His conversation with the students helped him know the timing was right.

Ediger researched similar programs across the country and found that most were pre-professional programs whose sole purpose was to fulfill prerequisites for graduate studies. Ediger realized that Whitworth, as a Christian liberal arts university, had an opportunity to create a different kind of program, one based on a holistic understanding of health.

"I wanted to make a health science major with a soul," says Ediger, now chair of the health sciences department. "This major is an expression of Whitworth's mission to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity."

Today, health science is Whitworth's most popular major. Students study both the natural sciences and social sciences, preparing them to care for the whole patient. This varied but rigorous curriculum sets students up to succeed in graduate and professional programs in every area of healthcare, from physical therapy and occupational therapy to medicine and nursing.

"We offer a holistic approach to health science that includes physical, mental, social and spiritual health," says Associate Professor Elizabeth Abbey '03.

Abbey teaches Nutrition, which, along with other required courses like Personal Health and Community Health, imparts students with a broad view of health that goes beyond requirements for graduate programs.

Throughout the major, students learn about how socioeconomic differences affect health. "In the same way that students understand physiology and how the human body works," Ediger says, "we want them to understand social justice and how poverty and race impact health."

In addition to the health science curriculum, Whitworth’s liberal arts emphasis provides distinct advantages for both students and their future patients.

The health sciences faculty believes that the skills developed through a liberal arts education, like critical thinking and communication, are essential to providing healthcare.

"Our students are going to encounter in their fields people from all walks of life, and being able to interact with them is as valuable as anything," Abbey says. "Taking a literature class and learning to critically analyze a text builds the sort of critical thought that can be used in things like diagnosis."

Ediger says courses in art, music and literature help future healthcare professionals learn about the human condition. Abbey notes that these courses also give students creative outlets to lean on as they enter professions with high burnout rates.

Whitworth’s liberal arts education is about helping students become educated citizens who can contribute to the good of society, Ediger says. "Having that training and mindset," he says, "is so valuable before students go into professional training."

Health Sciences at Whitworth

Reflections from the Field

A glimpse at how Whitworth’s liberal arts education shapes our health science graduates' work.

Jalana White '14 and Justin Liu '14

Chiropractors and founders of Built to Move Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation in Spokane

Pictured above: Liu (foreground) and White (background)

Jalana White and Justin Liu wanted to bring a new kind of chiropractic care to the community – one rooted in compassion and relationships. White says classes outside of the health science major allowed her and Liu to connect with students with different backgrounds, worldviews and interests. This prepared them to interact with all kinds of patients.

"Understanding where a patient comes from, what they believe and how they best heal really changes how care is provided from patient to patient," White says. "Our goal is to connect with patients and provide them a sense of community and empowerment in their health, while also providing them with high-quality care."

Christie Kirkpatrick '16

Medical student at Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine; completing rotations at clinics and hospitals in Western Washington

For Christie Kirkpatrick, singing in the Whitworth Choir was just as rigorous as her science courses and taught her valuable lessons she applies in her work today. "We all learned very quickly that we could accomplish much more if we prioritized the group, our common cause, over ourselves," she says, noting that the same principle applies in medicine, where the patient is the common cause and everyone involved in their care must work together to maximize their well-being.

Kirkpatrick uses music to cope with the stress of medical school and encourages her patients to do the same when they are struggling. "Participating in music at Whitworth really helped me appreciate how therapeutic the arts can be," she says.

Graeme Lauer '14

Occupational therapist in Vancouver, British Columbia

Graeme Lauer is an occupational therapist working in mental health and substance use in Vancouver, British Columbia. He says Whitworth helped him form the practice of gathering viewpoints and skills from beyond his own discipline in order to ultimately strengthen it.

"I have been equipped to listen well, seek understanding and respond to the limitations of my own perspective by studying outside of health sciences in order to inform health sciences," Lauer says. "I believe a liberal arts model applies to education the wisdom of Ecclesiastes’ three-stranded cord and the strength it brings."

Lauer often recalls a lesson he learned on the importance of perspective from Professor of Sociology Raja Tanas. "I work with clients who experience hallucinations and delusions, which feel very real but are not in our shared reality," he says. "I have to remember they have a different, valid perspective due to those experiences."

Jessica Hill '15

Pediatric oncology nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Jessica Hill says her Whitworth liberal arts education rounded out her learning and trained her to truly care for other human beings. "I got a background in ethics, communication, writing, psychology and sociology in addition to all of my incredible health science classes," she says. "Skills and information gained from each one of these have come into play over the last few years."

Jan Term theology courses in Costa Rica and Great Britain exposed Hill to new ways of life and made a lasting impact. "Now caring for so many international patients," she says, "I feel like I have somewhat of an appreciation for what it must be like for them to be the 'foreigner' in a new place with a different language and trying to navigate that."

Paul Werhane '11

Acute care physical therapist at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane

One of Paul Werhane's favorite classes outside his major was American History through Popular Culture, taught by Professor Dale Soden. "He taught us that there are so many different lenses through which we can view history, and they all give us a more complete understanding of the events that transpired," Werhane says. "This lesson is something that has helped me when I'm treating patients from all different walks of life and experiences, helping me to take the time to listen to their stories. This allows me to understand where they are coming from a little bit better, and in doing so makes me a more effective clinician."


This story appears in the spring 2020 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.