Empathy and generosity of spirit take a battering in the exigencies of medical training, physician Danielle Ofri writes, and doctors and nurses have to learn to face the hard realities of death, dying and dead bodies with skill, grace and compassion.
"Where do we gain the fortitude to step into the same space as death and negotiate the unnerving complexities that eddy between our breaths?" she asks in a Slate magazine essay. "It’s not the type of thing you can Google."
Dr. Ofri, who has researched the joys, fears, stresses and conflicting messages young doctors get when they enter the clinical world, is author of the book What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She is an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, has cared for patients at Bellevue Hospital and is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, which she says focuses on creative interpretations of medical challenges and vulnerabilities. Dr. Ofri believes patients and physicians need poetry and that in order to be wise caregivers, doctors and nurses need the creative skills people learn from studying the humanities. Sometimes, she observes, "it is the things we deem least practical that wield the most power."
Her Slate piece describes the work of Cuban American physician-poet Dr. Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, who recently won the Hippocrates Open International Prize for Poetry and Medicine for his poem "Morbidity and Mortality Rounds." Accepting the prize, Dr. Campo wrote, "Through my poem - about a dying patient - I was able to address the power of empathy to combat the distance we almost reflexively adopt toward our patients and confront our own shortcomings." In his interview with Dr. Ofri, he said "A good poem engulfs us," and its brevity and urgency demand "full participation of another in order to achieve completeness, to attain full meaning. In this way, it is not so different from providing the best, most compassionate care to our patients."
Dr. Campo’s prize winning poem begins:
Forgive me, body before me, for this.
Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled
in how to touch: I meant to understand
what fever was, not love. Forgive me...
Read the full poem here.
The poetry of medicine has been collected and taught at several schools. A University of Illinois School of Medicine page compares iambic pentameter to the heart beat.
William Carlos Williams is one famous physician-poet who wrote about life, love, joy, decline, death and his experiences in Paterson, New Jersey, where he lived and worked. Near the end of his lengthy poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, are lines compressing an urgent need for the ephemeral power of poetry:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.