Poets in White Coats

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By Rob Mitchum

When a doctor pulls a notepad out of his or her white coat, you might expect them to be writing down a drug prescription. But a recently completed contest thrown by the Prizker School of Medicine suggests that physician might be scrawling down a few lines of verse as well. The first annual Pritzker Poetry Contest received an overwhelming response, with more than 80 poetic submissions from Pritzker students, faculty, and residents. Those nominees were whittled down to 11 finalists, and the top entries in two categories were announced last week.

The idea to tease out the poetic side of physicians originated with Rama Jager, an assistant professor of opthamology & visual science with the University of Chicago Medicine. Jager saw a story in the New York Times about similar contests at the Yale and University College London medical schools, and thought that the concept would help students and faculty here express their feelings about their work and their relationships with patients.

With the help of medical students Rebecca Levine and Margaret Nolan and faculty advisor Shalini Reddy, the first Pritzker contest was born in February. Participants could submit a poem in either the rules-free open verse category, or (inspired by another New York Times article), the six-word poem division, a chance to express one’s feelings in highly efficient fashion.

“We wanted to have two different categories, especially since students, residents and doctors are often so busy that an open-form poem can be daunting to take on,” said Nolan, a fourth-year Pritzker student. “6-words can be easier, and yet challenging in other ways as it forces you to distill an experience or thought into so few words. It’s a really fun exercise for anyone to try, though, and we’ll hopefully experiment with other original forms in the coming years.”

The missions of the contest — to “recognize and celebrate the humanistic side of medicine at all levels of medical training and practice” and “foster continued compassion for our patients, enhancing the therapeutic doctor-patient relationship throughout our medical careers” — inspired a flood of replies [pdf]. Generous prize money, which ranged as high as $1,000 for first place in the open poem category, surely didn’t hurt too. Levine said that the final totals doubled the organizers’ original estimate, and gave the panel of 13 judges plenty to work with.

“We thought that there would be around 15 to 20 entries in each category given that this was the first year of the competition and people may not have seen our messages about the competition, have had time to write poems, or be interested in this form of expression,” said Levine, also a fourth-year with Prtizker. “When we received around 40 poems in each category, we were shocked and elated!”

The winning poems, which can be read in full and properly formatted form at the Pritzker website, are a deft blend of medical terms and emotional verse. You may not see the phrase “sinus tachycardia” appear in too many poems published in Granta, but the first prize winner in the open-poem category, H.I.E. by third-year medical student Joshua Williams, weaved that term and other pieces of physician lingo into an artful description of a two-year-old critically ill hospital patient.

You are G-tube, trach-dependent,
deaf, blind, devastated, orphaned,
forgotten,
and two years old today.

You are an incredible teacher.

Second-year Pritzker student Liese Pruitt’s Two Tiny Feet (tied for second) contrasts the bright environment of a delivery ward with a scene of mourning.

sanitized
unyieldingly,
cheerful, a place
for hellos, here
are only good-byes

And first-year Brian Thurber’s Monday Morning Rounds illustrates the all too routine struggle of providing emotional reassurance to patients whose health is declining.

It’s not fair for me to give her a false sense of
security
All the news is bad
Her numbers look worse than they did the day
before
I can’t lie to her
I can’t tell her that everything’s going to be ok
Because it’s not

It’s just not . . .

The transformation of such trying experiences into poetry can help doctors-in-training deal with their emotions and improve their bedside manner going forward, both Levine and Nolan said.

“I think that writing poetry helps foster compassion in medicine and stronger doctor-patient relationships in several meaningful ways,” Levine said. “The process of writing poetry allows you to reflect on your experiences with patients and remember moments where words, actions, or therapies helped alleviate patients’ suffering. By recording these moments, you will be better able to repeat these best practices when caring for patients.”

“Being a physician and witnessing human suffering with such intensity, and so frequently, requires periodic reflection in order to maintain our own emotional equilibrium,” Nolan said. “It also requires support from friends, family and colleagues. Poetry is one vehicle that fosters this, and allows us to communicate and share what we have experienced with others.”

And as the six-word poem winners demonstrated, you sometimes don’t even too much space to capture the enormity of clinical experience and medical education.

“They listened this time. Sans stethoscope” (Kunmi Sobowale, second-year)

“Doctors err. Great ones reflect, metamorphose.” (Yiuka Leung, fourth-year)

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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