A poetry reading at Bellevue Hospital

The waiting area in Bellevue Hospital was full. Every chair was taken. But the people kept streaming in. More chairs had to be brought in. It wasn’t clear if the room could accommodate everyone.

This wasn’t the emergency room or the clinic waiting area, however. It was the scene of the Bellevue Literary Review poetry and prose reading. More than 100 people poured into Bellevue Hospital on a Sunday evening to hear four authors read their work aloud.

As the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, it was my job to welcome the audience and introduce the readers. As I looked around at the audience who filled every available seat in Bellevue’s historic rotunda, I marveled at the remarkable change this hospital has seen.

Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the country, founded in 1736 and continuing to this day as a hospital whose doors are opened to all. I did all my medical training at Bellevue and have had many memorable experiences there, but I could never have imagined attending a poetry reading in my hospital.

This very room where audience members now sipped cabernet and leafed through back issues of the BLR, once served as the social work office. As a third-year medical student many moons ago, I rifled through bins of used clothing, hunting for a pair of pants for one of my patients. He was homeless, and his discharge was delayed because he lacked pants.

I could never have envisioned that someday poetry and prose would be regular denizens of Bellevue, alongside staphylococci, appendectomies and myocardial infarctions. But hospitals are places where the human spirit is often at its most vulnerable. And it is within these planes of vulnerability that literature and the arts have the most resonance.

In 2001, the Bellevue Literary Review was founded, the first literary journal to arise from the halls of a hospital. At the time, we placed three tiny classified ads, calling for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions on the themes of health and healing, illness and disease. We were shocked when our offices were flooded with 1000 manuscripts from writers of all walks of life.

But perhaps this should not have come as a surprise. Everyone is at some point touched by illness, whether personally or through the experiences of a family member. None of us are immune to the frailties and limitations of the human body.

The burgeoning of the Internet has allowed us access to a wealth of medical information. But the excessive amounts of facts at our disposal do not necessarily make it easier to cope with the fears and unknowns of illness. This, I believe, is where the arts and humanities fit in, and why every seat in the rotunda of Bellevue Hospital was packed on Sunday night.

Reggie Cabico gave an energetic poetry-slam type of performance. In his thoughtful poem “Soul Bargaining” he said:

“By soul, I mean the sliver that God has placed deep
inside me. Its weight runs through me, schools of dumb
fish, complicated as tiny buttons…
…By soul, I mean in a hotel room
where a man places his lips to your ears as if they were tiny
candles, extinguishing the night with his kisses…”

Paola Peroni read a short story that took place in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. An elderly woman is addressing the room, sometimes repetitively, about how she has made it to 97, and what good health habits she has. The scene is narrated through the eyes of Maria, the young Guatemalan woman-plagued by nail biting and being overweight-who is her home attendant, and who recalls her own mother, prematurely aged by a difficult life.

Hal Sirowitz, the former Poet Laureate of Queens, NY, recited his poems with an absolute deadpan delivery. This was not a self-styled conceit, however. Sirowitz discussed, forthrightly, the Parkinson’s Disease that has been gradually limiting his motions and speech. He’d undergone deep-brain-stimulation surgery a few years ago that released him from the tyranny of rigidity, and allowed him to participate in events such as this. In the poem “Father’s First Heart Attack” he read:

“…He had seen actors pretending
to have heart attacks on TV,
so he knew what was happening.
But he couldn’t get the dramatics
right…
…If he ever gets a second one, he
hopes it’ll be more TV-line.
He wants to die like a professional.”

Itzhak Kronzon, a cardiologist from NYU, was the final reader of the evening. With his thick Israeli accent, he told the story of his father growing up in Kalvarija, Lithuania. Having graduated at the top of his class, his father applied for a professorship at Prince Vytautus the Great University. The selection committee informed him that he was the most qualified applicant for the job, but since the department already had one Jew, they could not accept another.

Furious, his father renounced his country–a land of civilized European life–and set off for the swamps of Palestine with his new bride. Eleven years later, in 1941, every member of his father’s family, along with the rest of the 8000 Jews of Kalvarija, was murdered.

More than a half century later, while lecturing on cardiology in Europe, Kronzon was approach by a delegation of young Lithuanian physicians, inviting him to visit his ancestral homeland. At first he was terrified by the idea of traveling to Lithuania, recalling his aunts and uncles who perished, some of whom injected their own children with poison as the Nazis and peasants were breaking down the doors, others who were burned alive in their homes.

But eventually he and his brother made the trip. Their grandfather’s house was still standing. Remnants of the Kalvarija synagogue could be identified. Prince Vytautus the Great University granted Kronzon an honorary degree, in memory of his father. In a moment infused with irony and sadness, Kronzon thanked the university for its racist policies–policies that saved the life of his father and was responsible for three generations of descendants who would otherwise never have existed.

The reading finished with a hush. Quietly, the audience members rose from their seats. The authors, editors, and listeners gathered up their copies of the Bellevue Literary Review and began to mingle, talking about the powerful emotions that had been stirred, and the beauty of the literature that had been shared.

When I started medical school, I had no idea that my life would veer toward literature, and I certainly did not expect to be editing a literary journal. But the experience of this reading–the seventeenth since the inception of the BLR–reminded me that healing is a multi-dimensional process. I am glad for all of the 21st-century medical tools at my disposal and would never want to practice medicine without them. But the arts and the humanities are critical elements as well, and I am grateful that they have a home in our hospital.

Danielle Ofri is an internal medicine physician and author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine.

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