The day I flew to Dunedin to begin my first year studies in the health sciences, my wonderful best friend came to Wellington airport to see me off and gave me an article he’d been nagging me to read for ages. It was Leslie Jamison’s essay The Empathy Exams. In it, Jamison explores the complexities of giving and receiving empathy through stories of her experiences as a medical actor playing a standardised patient, and as a patient herself. It turns out my best friend was right, of course; I read the whole essay twice through on the plane, and so began my love affair with medical creative writing.
Reading and writing have been a balm as I’ve continued my journey through medical school. During the intense academic study of my pre-clinical years, reading creative work about health and disease gave me a window through which to peer into the world of clinical medicine, a world I yearned to join. Writing was a creative outlet, and an opportunity to process and share some of the unique experiences of medical school such as cadaver dissection.
In my third year of study I was fortunate enough to participate in a poetry course for my humanities selective, a six week programme which gives Otago medical students an opportunity to experience studying a humanities discipline. I have long been a casual poetry fan, but this course challenged me to analyse poems and (for the first time) to write some of my own.
This year, I have entered the clinical stage of my medical training. As a sensitive wee soul, I have found myself increasingly turning to poetry for sustenance and to help make sense of the trials and triumphs of this unique profession.
I really love poetry. I love the way a poem can strip back a story or a feeling back to its bones. I love the condensed meaning. As a wee bit of a word-nerd (a linguistics graduate in my pre-medical life) I love the way poets play with language. But I think what I love most about poetry, and what made it important for me this year, is connection.
When I read a great poem I am connected across time and space with the poet, feeling an emotion or a vibe, hearing a story they thought was important to tell. Good poetry can give us insight into other people’s experiences of the world, and I think in doing so it can remind us we’re not alone.
I’ve been dipping my toe into writing some poems of my own recently. Here is one I wrote after my recent surgical training attachment.
Your body has been fighting this infection for a long time
the registrar explains, which is why the abscess formed,
a filled-to-bursting pocket of immune cell corpses and fluid
under pressure, stretching your skin.
When you ask why you need an operation, the registrar replies that
all that badness has to go somewhere.
It could poison your blood if we don’t let it out, the registrar says
which sounds about right.
We call it incision and drainage, this excavation of pus.
I am part of “we” now, which means I get to watch
as it is laid open and the badness is released
flowing freely at first and then milked from the wound.
When you are awake, the registrar explains that
you have been filled with iodine-doused packing gauze
to stop the wound from closing too soon
when the badness might come back.
When your wife asks why, the registrar replies that
our skin is great at closing over to protect us from the world.
A tidy scar on the outside can hide a deep abyss, the registrar says
which sounds about right.
We send you home with instructions to care for your wound,
to clean and repack it until it is time for it to close.
This is how you heal now, from the inside out,
gauze removed inch by inch, each day filling a smaller hole.
Isabelle Lomax-Sawyers is studying medicine at the University of Otago, Dunedin School of Medicine.
Read “Our cadaver is male” by Isabelle Lomax-Sawyers.
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