When we think of doctors writing, we tend to picture illegible prescriptions, not lines of poetry. And yet, increasingly, surgeons and neurologists are producing poems, novels, plays and creative nonfiction, in addition to opinion pieces about current medical issues. Hooray for them, but what about their day jobs? Where is the benefit for patients?

Addressing this question, “Doctors and Patients: What We Learn from Each Other” is the title of the next public reading by physician-writers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. They call themselves the Pegasus Physicians, a group of 50 who “come from all walks of medicine,” says Dr. Hans Steiner, a psychiatrist who co-founded the group in 2008 and now directs it. http://www.hanssteiner.com/pegasus-physicians-at-stanford/

Famous doctor-writers, and doctors who become writers, are not a new phenomenon. From Anton Chekhov to Abraham Verghese, physicians have become popular and respected literati.

What’s new is the normality of it. You don’t have to be a celebrity or a Copernicus. You don’t have to write a memoir that becomes a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. Medical schools including Yale and Columbia offer popular writing workshops. The Seven Doctors Project was founded in 2008 to promote interaction between physicians and writers. Their work has been featured in literary magazines and on bioethics panels, and last year the Seven Doctors Project joined the prestigious Nebraska Writers Collective.

The Pegasus Group has quarterly readings that are free and open to the public, and the public shows up. “What We Learn From Each Other” is Thursday, Sept. 25, at the Clark Center Auditorium, 5:30-7 p.m. RSVP to jmgeno@stanford.edu.

The previous reading drew an overflow crowd, despite the chilling title: “I Am Afraid I Have Bad News: Death and Dying in Medicine.”

Unlike the rest of us, physicians have a hard time ignoring death. It happens. All their training and compassion, all the new technology, and the patient dies anyway.

This comes in handy when finding words that resonate with other people. They’ve been there. They can tell us what it’s like.

Many draw inspiration from William Carlos Williams, the physician who wrote these memorable lines:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

[For readers with more time, here’s the full poem,

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

Hear me out

for I too am concerned

and every man

who wants to die at peace in his bed

besides.

As Dr. Henry Ward Trueblood, a surgeon, said in introducing the Pegasus readers:

“The question is: How can we be with our patients at the end of life? How can we remain compassionate physicians and trustworthy truth-tellers are the same time?”

For Dr. Gregg Chesney, a critical care physician, poetry provides a personal catharsis. But he says it also helps him be a better doctor. It helps him put himself in the place of patients and families, and build trust. He started writing poetry eight years ago, as a second-year medical student. After reading two of his poems – about families facing loss -- he told the Pegasus audience, “Oftentimes it’s the family we’re managing. When I go into a room, as a doctor, there is a script. How do I introduce myself, try to be empathic, sympathetic and have the distance to be able to guide them through these discussions.”

Doctors often find that writing helps them process heart-breaking unfairness, and come back to work again the next day. http://www.pw.org/content/writers_doctor’s_definitely

No matter how dire the situation, we all need hope. Dr. Kendra Peterson, a neurologist, seeks new definitions of hope in her creative non-fiction.

It may be hope for a peaceful death. Stanford medical student Kendall Madden weaves themes of death and regeneration into her poem, Forgetting Persephone. Here is a passage:

Slipping out of life, the heat retreats

inward, then, where?

The question fills my mind

Night I pronounce, for the first time,

A person dead.

And the family

Waits for my words

Like I am the figure at the gate

Letting through the soul …

-- Sheila Himmel

About the Author

Fran Smith and Sheila Himmel

Fran Smith and Sheila Himmel are the co-authors of a new book on compassionate end-of-life care, Changing the Way We Die.

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