January 28, 2014

Literature and medicine


In a recent segment on PBS NewsHour, host Jeffrey Brown and poet laureate Natasha Trethewey examined the intersection between poetry and medical healing. The feature, called “Student physicians examine poetry to hone art of healing,” follows poet and doctor Rafael Campo in a poetry workshop he runs for medical students. Campo, whose most recent book of poetry is Alternative Medicine, finds that “poetry can benefit every doctor’s education and work” in a way that is integral to the process of empathetic diagnosis. In fact, he said,

Poetry is in every encounter with my patients. I think healing, really, in a very profound way, is about poetry. And if we do anything when we’re with our patients, we’re really, I think, immersing ourselves in their stories—really hearing their voices in a profound way. And certainly, that’s what a poem, I think, does.

As Brown explains, “Campo worries that something important has been lost in medicine and medical education today: a humanity that he finds in poetry.” And so Campo leads a weekly workshop dedicated to the reading and writing of poetry that can impact the way his students see their medical careers. Where medicine too often can focus on “distancing the doctor from his or her patients,” Brown points out, “poems . . . can help close that gap,” particularly as bridges between “medical facts and human truths.”
In a profession that often demands detachment, poetry and literature can forge connection and empathy. Brown calls this Campo’s “own brand of alternative medicine,” but for several years it’s been a sort of movement. In my first year of college, sure I wanted to be a doctor, I took a seminar called “Literature and Medicine.” (As I’m now writing here, I’m sure you can figure out which way I ended up going.) While some of the reading was predictable—including doctor-writers like Abraham Verghese and Atul Gawande—much of our reading also had to do with the basic experience of mortality. We read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Chekhov’s medical stories, and Dickinson’s knells.

We called it “narrative medicine,” and what we sought as a class was the ability to respect patients’ stories without detachment, using literature as a model and connector. There were poems about telling families good news and bad; stories following doctors home; films, like Wit, that watched people slowly die. Despite the common mode of calling literature “unflinching,” what we learned there was the most unflinching body of literature I’ve read. It wanted, so badly and importantly, to connect.

As Trethewey explained it in the segment, “poetry connects us to the experience of other human beings.” When we read Williams’ “Last Words of My English Grandmother” in class I understood something: though, as his grandmother says, we don’t know anything, this may just be our best means of trying.

Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.