Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Doctors Who Write

Last week I read the following poem, by Warner V. Slack, M.D., on the blog kept by Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Dr. Slack kindly gave me permission to share it here. It's arresting, inspiring, and profound. I am grateful for writers (and doctors) like him, who stop and think, and who make the effort to see, the first task of any artist (or physician).

By Warner V. Slack, MD

Next to Children’s Hospital, in a hurry
Down the stairs, two at a time
Slowed down by a family, moving slowly
Blocking the stairway, I’m in a hurry
I stop, annoyed, I’m in a hurry
Seeing me, they move to the side
A woman says softly, “sorry” in Spanish
I look down in passing, there’s a little boy
Unsteady in gait, holding onto an arm
Head shaved, stitches in scalp
Patch over eye, thin and pale
He catches my eye and gives me a smile
My walk is slower for the rest of the day


One of my most sacred "academic" values is a reverence for story and language. As in the case of being a "person of faith," being a person with a deep love of the arts and humanities can sometimes be marginalizing in the medical world. Medical training, in fact, can be a desert for those who thirst for really good writing, as a Time article once affirmed, so when I find a poet like Dr. Slack, I feel like someone who has taken a long-awaited cold drink of water on a scorching day, or who has found a breezy spot under shade trees in an otherwise arid landscape.

I especially admire those who can write poetry. Of all literary forms, I think this distilled form is the most challenging - all that meaning to cram into an itty bitty space! Not a word out of place! Next hardest, I think, is the short story, also a distillation of meaning without the wider "wiggle room" afforded by novellas and novels.

I found this wonderful paragraph by Stephen J. Dubner on the subject of doctors who write:

"So why do these doctors write so well, and so much better (to my mind, at least) than other non-writers? Perhaps there are elements of doctoring that lie in harmony with writing: peeling back the layers to get to the core of an issue; confronting the obvious but being willing to look beyond it; learning where to 'cut in,' of course; and, more than anything, recognizing that this object before you – in one case a human body, in the other a manuscript – is on a certain level a miraculous object with the power to astound, and on another level is a complex, dynamic system which can (and must be) reduced to a schematic, laid out on paper or x-ray film."

We learn as medical students that the most important resource for our healing efforts is a thorough history of our patient. Story, story, story: it's not only what makes us human, but also what drives us and helps us excel at our humanity. I thank Dr. Slack, and his intellectual / artistic / spiritual ancestors and colleagues: Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, W. Somerset Maugham, A. Conan Doyle, A.J. Cronin, Walker Percy, Ethan Canin, Sid Schwab, and so many other doctors who write (or writers who doc!), for their gifts, and their balm.


Sid Schwab said...

What amazing company into which you inserted my name! Would that I were worthy. Still, the idea that some people notice and appreciate my writing is deeply satisfying. Thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

If I may be so presumptuous as to refer you to another doctor/poet:

Nice blog! Thanks for it!

T. said...

Thank you so much for stopping by, Dr. Schwab!

And anonymous, I appreciate the reference very much and can't wait to discover Dr. Straus's work.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget St. Luke!

valleygirl said...

New to your blog. I've enjoyed reading it so far. Were you a "non-trad" med student applicant? I am considering med school (I'm in my 30s). What was your path to med school? Is there a post in your blog where you wrote about how you got to med school?

Lisa Johnson said...

Wonderful poem and a great post! The history of the patient that you mentioned, which is the patient's story, immediately made me think of case law. Every case that we read in law school is really just someone's story too. I think that's why so many attorneys also end up writing fiction and poetry.

T. said...

Ed - YES! Thanks for reminding me!

valleygirl - thank you for reading! Your questions inspired a new post - I may not answer all of them in detail in it, but please don't hesitate to contact me by email if you want to chat more about the med-school process.

Anali, what a wonderful point - my lawyer-husband would appreciate your insight. Thank you for sharing!