Here’s something wonderful on the word front: the healing professions are slowly but surely drawing on the power of stories, poems, and the craft of writing not only to help patients, but to nurture the humanity and humility of health-care practitioners. A case in point: John F. Martin, a cardiologist, professor, and published poet.
In a short feature (October 14, 2013) in The New Yorker, Dr. Martin observed, “We’re excavating the cell to look at smaller and smaller parts of it. Very few students are able to think of the physiology of the way the body works , how the big systems of the internal cosmos function. Medicine on both sides of the Atlantic is becoming a factory system. So what can we do to stop this brutalization of the medical students’ minds and souls? The thing that occurred to me was let’s encourage them to write poetry.”
To do just that, The University College of London and Yale have joined forces to create a poetry contest for their medical students. What a fabulous idea! This year’s winner was a poem called “The Gift” by Lorenzo Sewanan. Written spontaneously months before the competition, it was inspired by a patient who came to one of Lorenzo’s classes and talked about herself and how she felt, and about her husband, who had passed away.
Every week, I receive an online magazine called Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine, in which doctors, surgeons, nurses and others struggling with our complex health care system while trying to serve their patients are free to express themselves through stories and poems. Reading these selections has made me realize what a soothing and soul-satisfying release it is for people in a field as demanding as medicine to care for and about their patients through words that are descriptive rather than prescriptive. So often, what shines through is a yearning to see patients as whole people who’ve lived rich and layered lives. Stories help us find not only meaning but wholeness. Little wonder then that words are proving to be strong medicine. Write on.