Ode to the stethoscope: on medical poetry

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In my college, which was known for its science programs, there was a gap between science students and humanities students. Science students seemed to believe that they were the only ones on campus learning something worthwhile, and looked down upon the humanities students who dared to put Shakespeare over the stethoscope.

It was odd, given that medicine and poetry have been linked throughout history, with famous writers such as John Keats and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. being trained as doctors. For them, poetry offered a way to meaningfully connect with their patients and for themselves to reflect on their intense and overwhelming work.

As a double major in Biology and English, it amused me immensely to see how science students used the very humanities-based skills they looked down upon in their classes and ultimately in their personal lives, from drawing to life. heart diagrams to lab report writing to cover writing. letters for internships.

But they never saw him like that.

For many of them, writing was a skill they only needed to get by. It was never anything of real value, especially this artsy-fartsy literary writing. So when I learned that prestigious medical journals published poetry, I was flabbergasted. Many of these journals require rigorous peer review and are difficult to publish. But it does make sense. I even wrote a summary last year on Doctors of Literature.

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

For both the physician and the patient in an impossible situation, protocol demands that physicians maintain their professionalism and let 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 Treat Death in COVID Departments? How do patients live such a painful experience? How do the two express what goes through their minds and hearts?

For some doctors, poetry is a 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 Los Angeles Times, “Medical journals are increasingly the first choice of physicians who believe that poetry is the best way to capture the fragility, tenacity and universality of human experience. Poetry itself is the perfect vehicle for expressing intense human emotions to those who may not fully understand. For such an intense experience as treating patients with COVID-19, this is nearly impossible.

Dr. Rafael Campo, JAMA poetry editor and 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 critical times. most meaningful of life, whether attending childbirth or at the end of life.

In The New Yorker article titled “Ode on a stethoscope“said Alastair Gee”[the poems] appear alongside scientific studies – reviews of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials and the like – writings that are models of rationality and logic, and that require stripped-down clinical language and suppress the anecdote and the allusion. This contrast is fascinating because it shows that these “models of rationality” can appear alongside poems that relay something as irrational as human emotion. But perhaps it is this contrast that makes poems so valuable to medicine. This constant goal of rationality needs a foil because human life, even in a medical context, is going to illicit all kinds of human emotions and experiences that need to be expressed.

That said, like the rigorously researched scientific papers published by journals, poems are also rigorously edited, meaning they can stand out for their quality alongside 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 is going on in our medical centers, our communities and the world.” While the three poems weren’t written specifically for JAMA, I found it fascinating that the publication thought about writing a thoughtful analysis of three poems to help readers cope with the loss caused by the pandemic.

One of the poems analyzed by the article was “One Art” by esteemed Elizabeth Bishop, who originally published the poem in The complete poems. The articles note 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 “obsessive thinking. similar to what many have been experiencing as we worry about PPE supplies, schools reopening, vaccine safety, and our potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. It’s funny how poems written years ago can still resonate and find interpretations relevant to the times and current events.

On February 2, 2021, JAMA published an original poem titled “I dream of animals during the pandemicBy Mr. Cynthia Cheung, MD. A quote that rocked me deep inside said, “I wake up / before I can say I’m sorry I’m sorry / I’m the doctor who couldn’t / save you.” So many essays and books have been written about pandemic loss and some poems as well. However, the poems of doctors who are there with their patients have not received enough attention. Dr Cheung certainly relayed his distress and guilt in poignant ways, a catharsis necessary for a dedicated healthcare worker.

On the patient side, poems can help them feel seen. I can’t tell you how many friends and family have complained that the doctors just weren’t listening to them. Some doctors just look at test results, make a diagnosis, and prescribe medication. There is no consideration of lifestyle, family history and medical history. Not all doctors, of course, but it’s important that patients know they are being seen.

Danielle Ofri, writing for Slate, notes that “For patients, who may find themselves lost and speechless in the overwhelming medical enterprise, poetry can often help regain their voices.” There are of course many patients who have written about their experiences with the medical system, such as the famous Disease as a metaphor.

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


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