Narrative Medicine Monday: Anatomy Lesson

Poet Nellie Hill illuminates the process of learning anatomy in her Bellevue Literary Review poem, “Anatomy Lesson.” She notes that to “understand the heart you’ve got to memorize…” I remember searching for ways to memorize, as one professor put it, the “firehose” of information required as a new medical student. Anatomy is especially daunting, with all the blood vessels, nerves, muscle origins and insertions. Dissecting cadavers in anatomy lab is a rite of passage for every medical student, but we also drew pictures, color-coded organ systems, made up songs and stories to help us remember the essential information that is the human body. Hill starts with memorization, but takes the reader on a journey down the “snake path” of the body “to where thoughts become memories or dreams.” I like the imagery of “anatomy stacked like a ladder from your toes” and how Hill hints that the functional organ itself may also hold an intangible purpose.

Writing Prompt: Think about when you first learned anatomy. Even if you’re not in the healthcare field and never took a more intensive course in the subject, we all learn about basic bones and organs as children. Did learning about anatomy help you to see the body, and your own body, differently? When was the last time you thought about anatomy? What are your thoughts on how the physical body or certain organs might be connected to a greater or hidden purpose (acupressure points, the mind-body connection)? Write for ten minutes.


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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Permanent

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. 

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Free Write Friday: Pain

I notice it gradually, while exercising one morning. It’s a familiar routine, but that day bending over to touch the floor, leg lifted behind, I can’t hold the pose and my back gives way. The pain is insidious, then persistent. I go to work, hobbling throughout my day. Coworkers ask: What happened? Do you need something? Then they suggest: Try my chiropractor. Try downward dog. Here’s a hot pack. This is the only thing that helped my sciatica years ago. They’re all trying to be helpful but I can only wince. I can hardly walk. The pain is shocking, debilitating.

As a physician, I see people in pain every day. Pain from overexertion, pain from chronic illness, pain from medication side effects, pain from heartache. But to experience it myself, the slowing of body, the unexpected twitch of muscle with a movement, the limitations imposed by a body that isn’t working as it should, by a body that is a conduit for pain rather than a vessel for function: it’s humbling.

I don’t exercise for a week, then two. It’s hard to explain to others who only see me as able-bodied. They don’t realize. I shuffle as I cross the street; my husband and children walk casually ahead, so far ahead, on the crosswalk. I feel slow, I feel invalid. I get massage therapy, apply heat therapy, ingest ibuprofen religiously. The pain, initially searing in my back, flares unpredictably, shooting through my hip as I rise from sitting, as I twist to respond to a question, as I bend to pick up my baby from her crib.

A week into the flare, I just want to lie in bed, not get up, not go out. Though I am loathe to just lie there. I resent the creeping sluggishness. I want to defeat the lethargy and, simultaneously, be enveloped in it. I can suddenly see how people succumb: to numbing medications, to despair. Pain steals all functionality until the pain is all that’s left. And then it becomes your only companion. It is a cruel tease. One day or moment might feel a bit better, hope rises. Then, cruelly, it dissipates as the pain roars back.

One day I wake and can sit up without wincing, can walk with only a slightly antalgic gait. Everyone asks: How are you feeling? I feel tentative. I feel better. I feel anxious that it might come back, might return to level me again. I’ve learned now, it’s taught me. Pain is a presence, but also a thief.

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