In “Feeding Tube” author Susan Kelly-DeWitt relays a memory of paper birds that a patient’s family hung over the hospital bed “—wild tropical birds, macaws and toucans, parrots and cockatoo.” The visual that Kelly-DeWitt provides is vivid. The reader comes away feeling that humanity reigns over the mechanical devices that tend to dominate the hospital landscape.
I remember very little about the physical details of the critical care hospital room where I participated in my first code as a medical student. I do remember sitting by the resident physician as he wrote his note in the patient’s chart at the nurses’ station just after the man had died. I looked across the desk into the patient’s glass-walled room, my eyes fixed on an elaborate dream catcher hung carefully, just over his bed.
Writing Prompt: The hospital can sometimes feel a like a sterile, mechanical place. Think of a moment or an item, like Kelly-DeWitt’s paper birds, that struck you as out of place or particularly telling about a certain patient, their family and their life. Write for 10 minutes.
The spotlight has recently been on the opioid epidemic ravaging our country. As a primary care physician, I’m acutely aware of this issue and the challenges it poses to individuals, medical providers and the public health system as a whole. NPR’s The Takeaway recently did a program on understanding this crisis and approached it from many angles. Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote short a piece in Glamour magazine that gives a primary care physician’s perspective. In “The Dilemma Doctors Face,” Ofri notes that chronic pain is very real but differs from other chronic disease in that there is no definitive test or measurement for pain, it is subjective. “Chronic pain is real. It can ruin people’s lives. But the anvil of addiction and death can’t be ignored.” Ofri asserts that one challenge is that a system that doesn’t often pay for other ways of treating pain, such as physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, makes it easier for the medical provider to “just write a prescription.” Can you relate?
Writing Prompt: Have you or a loved one struggled with chronic pain? What were the challenges you faced when trying to find appropriate treatment? Have you or a loved one struggled with opioid addiction? What was the first sign that this had become an issue? If you prescribe opioid pain medications, how do you approach counseling patients about the risks and benefits of taking these medications? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in having this discussion? Write for 10 minutes.
Virginia Chase Sutton’s wrenching poem “Lithium and the Absence of Desire” warns of what may be lost in taking a necessary medication. She deftly describes the world before starting lithium and the reader is entranced along with her, “dozing in light and soaked color.” Despite side effects causing a graying of her world, the author dutifully takes “the medication as prescribed.” Written in second person, the reader is drawn into her longing for what she has lost and together we collectively struggle in vain: “Strain all you will but you have given desire away.”
Writing Prompt: This poem describes a negative, even devastating, side effect of a medication, yet the writer recognizes there was “No choice since you must take the pills.” Have you experienced a minor or life-altering side effect from a medication? Describe life before and after starting the medication. Did you keep taking the medication as prescribed, or did you search for a different treatment? Write for 10 minutes.
Emma Barnard is a visual artist and researcher focusing on fine art and medicine. Her latest installment, “Primum Non Nocere,” reflects the patient experience. Barnard’s work is influenced by her own interactions with the medical world as a patient and her research into this arena, including Michel Foucault’s term ‘medical gaze,’ used to “denote the dehumanizing medical separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s person or identity.”
I’m interested in Barnard’s method of creating art, where she follows a patient into the exam room and questions them right after, producing a drawing based on their response. She notes that many of the physicians are surprised at the resulting artwork: “During the consultation process patients show little emotion; it’s quite difficult to read how they really feel about the impact of the words spoken during the clinical encounter.”
Barnard also incorporates the physician and surgeon perspectives. Could you relate to her images of a physician’s experience in a busy clinic practice? I could certainly identify with the depiction of others superseding the “self” and various demands of work and home life feeling compartmentalized. Do you agree with the neurosurgeons’ statement that as physicians we view a division between us and patients and that we have to understand this alienation “if we are to find ways to soothe it and become connected to our patients and to the essence of medicine?”
Writing Prompt: As a patient, have you ever experienced Foucault’s ‘medical gaze,’ where you perceived a provider as seeing you only as a body, rather than recognizing your personhood? What did that feel like? As a medical provider, have you ever caught yourself interacting this way with a patient? How can we work to overcome this tendency? Write for 10 minutes.
Student and poet Thomas Nguyen writes of memories and loss in “Erasure.” In his poem Nguyen is instructional, warning how time affects our connection to those we’ve lost: “Accept that time makes things distant, that his absence doesn’t bleed into your memories as much as it used to.” There are only a few significant people in my life who have died, but I can identify with Nguyen who needs to try “harder and harder to remember the last time” he saw his mentor.
Nguyen notes that the patient speaks of his melaonmas as if they were part of his garden: “My dermatologist taught me how to care for them.” Nguyen goes on to contrast this with the green moss on the windows of his home. Do you agree with Nguyen that “life always adds?” Do you find this contention comforting or suffocating, or both?
Writing Prompt: Have you spent time with a loved one or patient who was nearing death? If time has passed, how have your memories of this person been affected? Recall the last time you saw them. Outline the details, like Nguyen’s memory of “neatly-pressed khakis.” Write for 10 minutes.
Today’s Narrative Medicine Monday is a bit different. In light of recent catastrophic hurricanes in the U.S., there have been many stories about disaster relief and people stepping up to help in ways they’re not used to. One such person is Dr. Jennifer McQuade. This NPR story describes how McQuade, a melanoma oncologist, dropped off basic supplies to a shelter following hurricane Harvey and discovered the medical aid there severely lacking. She then found herself in charge of a medical shelter, enlisting the help of other physicians and medical providers via a physician moms social media group. Often in such situations we’re called upon to help each other in ways we might not imagine possible. As Texan Claudia Solis notes in the story, “There’s a kindness…. They’re your neighbor, and you have to help, and it’s beautiful.”
Writing Prompt: Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to provide medical care beyond your normal area of expertise? Have you ever been the recipient of such care? Describe the situation and how you felt. How did it bring you closer to the people around you? Write for 10 minutes.
In “The Permanent,” Amy Burke Valeras takes us back to the 1980s when perming your hair was a thing. In the first half of the poem, Valeras opens up about her struggle with her hair; I could relate. I similarly begged for an ill-advised perm the same year, the same age as the author. I like how Valeras makes her hair a central character of the poem. We battle along with her preteen self as she tries to tame the “frizzy poof.” We can understand when, two decades later, she is told she has cancer but all she can think of is: “My hair!”
Writing Prompt: Think of an every day aspect of your life, of your body, that you took for granted or had a different relationship with until you became ill. Consider level of energy during a bout with the flu, walking with a sprained ankle; maybe you have lost your hair to chemotherapy or a breast to invasive cancer. Write about your relationship with this aspect of your body before you became ill and after. How did things change? Write for 10 minutes.
Dr. Rana Awdish is a critical care physician turned advocate for training in compassionate care following her incredible near death experience in her own hospital. Her essay “A View from the Edge” in the New England Journal of Medicine provides an overview of her 2008 experience as a critically ill patient cared for by her colleagues.
In her book “In Shock,” out this October by St. Martin’s Press, she outlines her harrowing near-death illness and recovery. I’m eager to read Awdish’s book and hear more about how her experience led to advocacy for “compassionate, coordinated care.” In her NEJM essay she describes how “small things would gut me. Receiving a bill for the attempted resuscitation of the baby, for example…. A trivial oversight, by a department ostensibly not involved in patient care, had the potential to bring me to my knees.” After recovering, Awdish channels her grueling patient experience into a drive to transform the way we receive and provide medical care. She contends “we need to reflect on times when our care has deviated from what we intended — when we haven’t been who we hoped to be. We have to be transparent and allow the failure to reshape us, to help us reset our intention and mold our future selves.”
Writing Prompt: Have you noted an erosion of empathy among medical providers? If so, think of a specific example and write about how you felt as the patient. If you’re a medical provider, have you ever been cared for by colleagues at your own hospital? What was it like to be on the “other side,” as a patient? Did you come away from the experience with new knowledge and empathy that you then incorporated into your own practice? Write for 10 minutes.
Poet and medical student Sarah Shirley describes an evolving interaction with a patient in “Wernicke-Korsakoff.” The patient initially finds complaint with everything: “the too soft too hard bed, the lunch that came with only one spoon though clearly two spoons were required.” Shirley struggles to connect with the disgruntled patient, who clearly wants nothing to do with her as an intrusive medical student.
Throughout my medical training and career I’ve encountered patients, like in “Wernicke-Korsakoff,” where “everything is thrown back.” They were angry at their disease, angry at the medical providers, angry at the system, angry at the world. At times, I’ve been one of those patients myself. There’s no doubt health and illness affect our mood. Many of those who are suffering build a shell to cocoon themselves off from the damaging world. Often they are rightfully skeptical of a medical system that has many failings. Shirley finally breaks through to her patient in the end, after searching for the right connecting point.
Writing Prompt: Think about a time you were sick. How did being ill affect your mood and interactions with others? Were you inclined to cling to others for support or did you find yourself “raging against the world?” Perhaps you experienced both. What about a time when you were caring for someone who was sick? Did they allow you to connect with them right away or was it a struggle? Write for 10 minutes.
Eliza Callard imagines a lung transplant in her vivid poem “#3 In Line.” She begins by describing the surgeon’s actions lifting “the sodden lungs out,” but then pauses to wonder about the patient: “Where will she be for all this?” Callard touches on the desperation following any transplant to get the foreign object to “stay, stay,” to trick a body into accepting an imported organ as one of its own.
Writing Prompt: Imagine an organ transplant: liver, lung, kidney. Write about the transplant from several different perspectives: that of the patient, her body, the transplant surgeon, the patient who donated the organ, even the organ itself. Write for 10 minutes.