Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) Fellowship alumnus, Harrison Hines, MD, MTS, is a neurologist now serving as a 2022-2023 White House Fellow on the Domestic Policy Council. Below is an edited transcript of conversations TMC recently had with Dr. Hines.
Is there a formative experience from your childhood that marks the beginning of your interest in medicine?
I got into medicine because I loved science and I really enjoyed people. I loved being able to serve people in a one-on-one setting. I went to South Africa one summer in college, interning and helping out however I could in a hospital in Ladysmith. It was stark and compelling to see what medicine really looked like, especially in a setting that was more resource limited than most settings in the United States. I felt like I could do this work that was, for me, mostly about being with people in the midst of suffering. I’ve heard a lot of friends say that they were drawn to medicine in order to be able to help people feel better. That energizes me as well. But what is really compelling for me is to sit with people in the midst of suffering, to be able to walk with them in the midst of it. Medicine is one way to do that.
How has your theological training helped shape your encounters with patients who are suffering?
One thing that I learned was from a speaker from Loyola Chicago, [Dr. John Hardt]. He was working with medical students in a longitudinal program, many of whom were Catholic. He described the way one of his students approached patients. The student took on a practice, informed by his tradition, to pause just before he stepped into a patient’s room. He would sanitize his hands with alcohol, taking a brief moment to prepare himself to go and touch the body of Christ before he entered the room. It changes the way that you approach someone when you think, “I’m about to touch the body of Christ.” It’s a powerful practice. I have tried to incorporate it into my own approach to patients, and I can tell you that I feel different when I do.
Tell me a story of an experience that you had as a TMC Fellow that has stuck with you.
I was an MTS student, which means I had to write a master’s thesis. As part of that, I was in a working group with Dr. Brett McCarty and some other folks, considering the ethical implications of the way we think about living kidney donation. It’s regulated very differently than deceased organ donation.
Brett and I went to New York and met with a religious organization that works on connecting donors with recipients anonymously. As an outsider looking in, one of the most interesting aspects of this organization was the way it moved within this particular religious community to understand the durable bond that might motivate someone to donate a kidney even though they may not know the individual to whom they are donating.
I went to New York thinking about how to decrease the healthcare disparity that exists around end-stage renal disease for black communities, and specifically, how to increase the rate of living kidney donation amongst African Americans. Walking away from that experience, the knowledge that shared life experience or cultural understanding might be enough to motivate someone to donate was fascinating.
My thesis was on a black Christian ethic of living kidney donation and looked at the ways we think about encouraging kidney donation. I researched ways in which this practice does or does not create disparity, especially within black populations where there is sometimes a lack of trust in medical systems. That exploration would not have happened without TMC. It was the sort of thing I only did because I was deeply embedded in the way TMC trains people to think beyond what it means to responsibly practice medicine.
How has your time with TMC interfaced with the broader public arenas of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, either during TMC or since then?
Partly because of my thesis, I thought a lot about social disparities in healthcare. We started one of the TMC courses reading The Anticipatory Corpse by Jeffrey Bishop. Bishop’s argument is that the way all students are trained in medicine is through the cadaver. That is the standardized ideal—the controlled, uniform, static body. That is what all living anatomy should be mapped onto. The book discusses what that does to the way you approach people.
I thought about that a lot, especially in how we think about others’ bodies. In medicine, it’s easy to think about someone’s body in terms of discrete organs or parts as opposed to thinking about them as a whole, in their lived context and experience. Similarly, I think the thrust of recent social justice movements is to open our collective eyes to the ways we see – or don’t see – each other as whole persons. TMC gave me tools to think about how we as a society approach caring for one another’s social circumstances.
During your fourth year of medical school you worked with California legislator, Shirley Weber. Tell me about that experience and how it contributes to the way you practice or view medicine.
I already had an inkling that working in clinical medicine is not going to be the only thing that I do with my career. I think that notion developed during my time with TMC. TMC Fellows are trained to reimagine the ways in which we can care for people holistically – not only the way that we practice medicine, but also the way that we are advocates for our patients. I tried doing that more while working with Dr. Weber.
It was extremely formative for me to think through what it looks like to affect the lives of people I will never be able to meet in clinic. In clinic you see one person at a time. That relationship is vital, but there are so many people who have problems that medicine can never touch. I wanted to see what kind of impact could be made through legislation, so I worked as a legislative intern for Dr. Weber.
One of the bills we ran was actually a constituent thought-up bill. A gentleman from the San Diego area called and said ‘Here’s an issue. I want to write a bill on it.’ So we did. It was powerful to see that, to go through that process together.
That bill looked at how people with developmental disabilities have their Medi-Cal, which is the California version of Medicaid, renewed. The way that Medicaid works in California is you have to re-apply for it every year in order to maintain your benefits if you have particular developmental disabilities. People sometimes miss the deadlines, which means that they run out of health insurance coverage. They have difficulty getting their medications, their inhalers, their oxygen, or whatever it happens to be. Sometimes they wind up in the emergency room needing those things. This bill was trying to change those regulations so that people who have developmental disabilities don’t have to go through that process every year. The goal was for it to happen every three years.
That bill did not go into law. It passed through the subcommittees with unanimous consent, which was great. But it got held up in appropriations, which means that they didn’t allocate money for it. Still, I learned a lot from bringing a constituent led bill that far through the legislative process. That experience energized me to continue policy work and political advocacy.
How does your time with TMC relate to the work you hope to accomplish as a White House Fellow?
The White House Fellowship was enacted by executive order by President Johnson in order to give professionals working outside of government high level government experience that they can take back to their communities and employ for the benefit of all of society. TMC was, for me, the catalyst for thinking outside of the bounds of what a typical life of theological reflection or clinical practice in neurology would look like.
I remember talking with Dr. Farr Curlin and Dr. McCarty about what it looks like to do ethics well as a physician. We discussed what it looks like to be a physician citizen and a physician servant. Being a physician citizen has come to define the way that I want to move in the world. I want to be a public servant who has doctoring not only in my background, but also as part of my moral understanding of the world. I want to be grounded in the stories of individuals who are going through extremely vulnerable places of suffering, looking first to heal those who are most vulnerable, most in need. My time with TMC is when I began to realize these hopes.
Also, the TMC Fellowship was a cohort experience. It was powerful to go through a program with a group of people oriented towards the same ends. Going through that year of deep reflection and education was one of the best decisions I could have made. The White House Fellowship is similar. We spend many hours together, outside of our workplace – attending a speaker series and other professional development activities – all of which are geared toward preparing us to give back to our communities through government service.
The TMC Fellowship prepared me to think about not only my impact, but also how I can multiply the impact of others around me by improving their experience, by broadening the way that they think about issues, by bringing my experience into conversation with theirs.
Harrison Hines is from Carmel, Indiana, and is placed at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Harrison is a neurologist who leverages his background in theology and policy to address healthcare disparities burdening vulnerable populations. As a legislative aide to California State Assemblymember Shirley Weber, he championed initiatives expanding insurance coverage for developmentally disabled Californians and improving representation for incarcerated individuals. During residency training at University of California, San Francisco, Harrison served on the boards of trustees for local and state medical societies where he advocated for equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution and fair medical trainee employment practices. Harrison founded a volunteer networking organization, directed community outreach at a free clinic, and participated in international research on faith-based healthcare delivery. He earned his M.D. from Stanford University, Master of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School as a Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellow, and B.A. from Duke University as a Robertson Scholar. (This bio comes from the website announcing Harrison’s appointment as a White House Fellow.)