How I Got Here

Johanna Shapiro, PhD.

Growing Up: I was the eldest of 3 children.  My parents were novelists who wrote books together; and to make money my dad wrote comedy first for radio, and then when it was invented, for television.  My mom, other than her writing, was a stay-at-home mother.  She had several chronic medical conditions, and was often ill.  When I was 7, my parents took us to Europe and the Caribbean to live for 2 years.  We lived a rather nomadic life, moving from country to country every few months.  I was homeschooled during this time, and later attended several different middle and high schools.

Education: Neither of my parents had finished college.  My dad changed careers when I was in high school, and went back to school to complete his BA.  We graduated from college (he at UCLA, I at Stanford) at about the same time ?. I was a Cultural Studies major. He went on to get his PhD in Mathematics and  a few years later, so did I, but in a very different field, Women’s Studies and Counseling Psychology. I got married in my last year of undergraduate and, much to my parents’ dismay, dropped out of university to follow my husband to Japan, where he wanted to study Zen Buddhism.  We bummed around Asia for about 13 months, including living in a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, which was profoundly life-altering, but eventually returned to the U.S.  First my husband and then I entered graduate school, where we both earned our doctoral degrees.   At that point I wanted to direct a Women’s Resource Center, or do work in gender studies, but could not find a job in the highly competitive environment of Palo Alto.  I worked very part-time at a locked psychiatric nursing facility and then purely by chance was hired into a program called Family Focus, a grant-funded pilot project in the Division of Physical Therapy at Stanford Medical School.  This was my first exposure to working in a health setting as a psychologist, and I loved it – working with patients with conditions such as stroke, amputation, paralysis and their families in a high interdisciplinary setting. I realized I wanted to find a way to continue this kind of work.

I was very lucky to be hired by a Department of Family Medicine at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine as a behavioral health specialist.  I worked for about 15 years helping family medicine residents to better understand the interplay of psychosocial, emotional, and physical factors in illness; how illness affects not just the patient, but the entire family; and the complex nature of the doctor patient relationship. I also did a fair amount of research on the effects of illness on families.

After spending an additional 5 rather unsatisfying years in administrative positions (director of a comprehensive Doctor-Patient course for first and second year medical students; family medicine clerkship director; Acting Chair of the department), I was seriously thinking of leaving the university.

Finding My Passion: At around this time, I had a significant medical event of my own.  My recuperation was lengthy and I rediscovered my early passion for literature. In reading about others’ struggles in life, I found myself consoled and uplifted.  I decided that before leaving my university, I really wanted to teach an elective on literature and medicine.  That first year, 3 students signed up, and two of them never attended class.  Every week for 10 weeks, Aparche Yang and I met and talked about medically-themed poems and stories.  I hope she had a good time.  I know I looked forward to these sessions every week.  From that elective (which I have taught every year for the past 20 years), I slowly developed a full-fledged program in medical humanities & arts, with required and elective curriculum across all 4 years of medical school. The program also encourages student research in the humanities, oversees a student publication Plexus for original art and writing, and sponsors humanities-related projects such as student art exhibits, dramatic and musical performances, and community photojournalism.

Role Models and Inspirations: I have always felt a commitment to issues of social justice. My role models were people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the socialist Dorothy Day,  (and later Ruth Bader Ginsberg) who committed themselves to working for societal change nonviolently. Other role models included second wave of feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who knew that the personal is the political.  Since I always carved my own path (designing both my own interdisciplinary undergraduate major and interdisciplinary doctoral studies), I did not have many role models per se who were doing exactly what I wanted to do.  But I did encounter many people along the way, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, as well as throughout my career, who championed my vision and helped me at every step.  I am very grateful to all the people who believed in me and helped shape my aspirations into reality.