Ode To a Stethoscope: On Medical Poetry

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In my college, which was known for its science programs, there was a divide between the science students and the humanities students. The science students seemed to believe that they were the only ones on campus learning anything of worth and scorned the humanities students who dared to put Shakespeare above the stethoscope.

This was odd, considering that medicine and poetry have been interlinked across history, with famed writers such as John Keats and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. being educated as doctors. For them, poetry offered an avenue to meaningfully connect with their patients and for themselves to reflect on their life-altering and intense work.

As a double major in Biology and English, it amused me to no end how science students used the very humanities-based skills they scorned in their courses and eventually in their personal lives, from drawing diagrams of the heart to writing laboratory reports to writing cover letters for internships.

But they never saw it like that.

For many them, writing was a skill that they needed only to get by. It was never anything of true value, especially that artsy-fartsy literary writing. So when I learned that prestigious medical journals publish poetry, I was floored. Many of these journals require rigorous peer review and are difficult to publish in. But it does make sense. I even wrote a round-up last year about doctors in literature.

Doctors are under considerable stress and are there for some of the darkest days in people’s lives. Take the astronomical toll of human life that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on humanity. Hospital beds full of patients on ventilators, overworked staff, and grief-stricken families who cannot say goodbye to loved ones.

For both doctor and patient in an impossible situation, the protocol dictates that doctors maintain their professionalism and let the evidence-based medicine do the work. This is perfectly fair because it works and saves lives.

But what about that valley of human emotion in between?

How do doctors process the death in COVID wards? How do patients process such a harrowing experience? How do both express what’s going through their minds and hearts?

For some doctors, poetry is one solution.

Medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), are known to regularly publish medical poetry alongside their peer-reviewed articles. According to the Los Angeles Times, “medical journals are increasingly the top choice for doctors who believe poetry is the best way to capture the fragility, tenacity and universality of the human experience.” Poetry itself is the perfect vehicle to express intense human emotions to those who may not fully understand. For an intense experience such as treating patients with COVID-19, it’s nearly impossible.

Dr. Rafael Campo, poetry editor of JAMA and a physician at both Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said: “In medicine we encounter situations where our patients are at some of the most meaningful moments in life, whether it be attending births or at the end of life.”

In The New Yorker article titled “Ode on a Stethoscope,” Alastair Gee said “[the poems] appear alongside scientific studies — accounts of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials and the like — pieces of writing that are models of rationality and logic, and that require stripped-down, clinical language and do away with anecdote and allusiveness.” This contrast is fascinating because it shows that those “models of rationality” can appear alongside poems that relay something as irrational as human emotion. But maybe it’s that contrast that makes the poems so valuable to medicine. That constant goal of rationality needs a foil because human life, even in a medical context, will illicit all sorts of human emotion and experience that needs to be expressed.

That said, like the rigorously researched scientific articles that the journals publish, the poems are also rigorously edited, meaning they can stand up in quality alongside the research.

On December 11, 2020, JAMA published an article titled “The Art of Losing — Three Poems for the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was “a way to make sense of what’s happening in our medical centers, our communities, and the world.” Although the three poems weren’t written specifically for JAMA, I found it fascinating that the publication thought to write a thoughtful analysis of three poems to help readers process the loss brought on by the pandemic.

One of the poems the article analyzed was “One Art” by the esteemed Elizabeth Bishop, who originally published the poem in The Complete Poems. The articles notes that the obsessive nature of the writing in “One Art” and even the underlying tone of hysteria, such as Bishop’s use of the lines “master/disaster, master/disaster” express an “obsessive thinking similar to what many have been experiencing as we worry about PPE supplies, school reopenings, vaccine safety, and whether we might be exposed to the novel coronavirus.” Funny how poems written years ago can still resonate and find interpretations relevant to the zeitgeist and current events.

On February 2, 2021, JAMA published an original poem titled “I Dream of Animals During the Pandemic” by M. Cynthia Cheung, MD. One quote that shook me to the core said, “I wake up / before I can say, I’m sorry I’m sorry / I am the doctor who couldn’t / save you.” So many essays and books have been written about the loss rendered by the pandemic and some poems as well. However, poems by doctors who are right there with their patients haven’t gotten enough attention. Dr. Cheung certainly relayed her distress and guilt poignantly, a necessary catharsis for a dedicated health care worker.

On the part of patients, the poems can help them feel seen. I cannot tell you how many friends and family have complained to me about doctors simply not listening to them. Some doctors just look at the test results, formulate a diagnosis, and prescribe medication. There’s no consideration of lifestyle, family history, and medical history. This is not the case for all doctors, of course, but it’s important that patients know they’re seen.

Danielle Ofri, writing for Slate, notes that “For patients, who can find themselves lost and voiceless in the overpowering medical enterprise, poetry can often help recapture their voice.” There are of course plenty of patients who’ve written about their experiences with the medical system, such as Susan Sontag’s famous Illness as Metaphor.

But sometimes, it’s just nice to know that the person in charge of your life sees you.



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