Evoke Calliope to ease the brutalising disease

Poetry contest reminds trainee medics that patients are people, not machines. Matthew Reisz reports

September 22, 2011

The "brutalising" effect of medical training, with its heavy focus on hard science, has long concerned John Martin.

Now, the professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London has done something to tackle the problem, which he argues can leave medics "thinking about people as molecular machines rather than as whole human beings with 'souls'".

"Most people believe poetry comes from the soul," he said. "I wanted to get students to think about the dilemmas by offering them £1,000 for writing a good poem."

As well as his role at UCL, Professor Martin is also adjunct professor of medicine at Yale University and co-director of the wide-ranging "transatlantic partnership" known as the Yale UCL Collaborative. He is also a published poet.

He therefore secured money from an anonymous donor to launch a poetry competition, designed "to stimulate creativity and expression among students in both medical schools, and to find through the use of poetry the commonality of experience".

He thought it would receive around 15 entries, but in the event there were 162.

These did not come from keen amateur poets, Professor Martin said, but mainly from "students stimulated to write poetry for the first time by the £1,000 prize - they saw £1,000 worth of beer in front of their eyes".

Yet he reports that Mastectomy - for his wife, one of the joint winners, "brought a tear to my eye".

And Kasia Boddy, senior lecturer in English at UCL, who chaired a team of judges from the institution and Yale, said the quality of the entries was as good as she would expect from students of English.

When the judging session, held via videoconference, led to deadlock, joint first prizes were awarded to Daphne Tan and Gabrielle Ruth Gascoigne, both based at UCL.

The runner-up was Noah Capurso, a medical student at Yale.

Professor Martin said there were lessons to be learned from the success of the competition.

While many medical schools have embraced the idea of "medical humanities", he worried that this could only exacerbate the problems he had identified if it amounted to nothing more than "celebrating the beauty of cells under a microscope".

What medical students really need, he said, is traditional humanities, pure and simple.

"The humanities can help doctors understand that they are not engineers but have both a scientific and a human function in relation to their patients," he explained.

"They help them cope with the personal pains associated with dealing with patients. They help train the mind in different ways."

Professor Martin added: "The best training for some of the issues doctors confront comes from reading a novel, learning a foreign language or reflecting on history.

"Yet those things are less and less a part of secondary school education now, particularly for people going on to study medicine."


Medical scan: physicians, heal thyselves and others

Apices, by Daphne L.S. Tan

The doctoring seek them out, soft staccato of contact, drumming of touch,

in every bed, stripped of the sheet,

thrown under light: fifth intercostal space; mid-clavicular line.

In everyone there is a uniform site

isolating the apex of the heart, and its beat.

Normality-affirming tap, transmitted

through the chest and trap of ribs,

via the skin, upon the fingers.

Other apices lie deeper within,

somewhere unguarded by the scaffold of bone,

beyond the reach of manipulation - no less fundamental,

only long unobserved, displaced over time.

Misplaced. Telling us that we are more

than normal. Reminded, we arise

to the shock of them, surface to a sudden fear of having strayed -

press hand to breast, reassured by

the evidence of life underneath;

subside. Some dreams are best undisplayed.

Some dreams have teeth.

Mastectomy - for his wife, by Gabrielle Ruth Gascoigne

it will be an honour

to bathe the scars.

don't think my tears imply

an ounce of sorrow -

only joy

could fill my eyes.

it will be a pleasure

to hold you close.

know this - your precious flesh

calls the bluff on gold

and silver - makes me a king.

it will be a delight

to talk with you

into the night we thought

stolen, clean away -

until day renews our hope.

It would be too heartless

if all this love,

these sinner's prayers and more

should fall to nothing

more than rain

on empty streets.

Aphasia, by Noah Capurso

We are taught that the brain

Is a set of highways;

Corpus callosum,


Optic radiation.

But there are other roads, as well.

Scenic neural backroads

That are hidden from view;

Dusty and seldom used.

Sometimes we can see them

When the highways are down;

From cancer,


Or a stroke.

Our patient had a brain tumor.

We tested her highways

With a feather drawing;

"What is this?" we asked her.

And the answer she gave

Came by the scenic route;

"A leaf That fell

From a bird."

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