Physicians have a right to pursue creativity

When I mentioned to a colleague and mentee that I would be writing this article, she expressed excitement about it and felt it would be well received by many physicians who might have given up their art — their form of creative expression — for the sake of medicine.

I had recently been encouraging her to continue her passion for writing. Sometimes we need others to encourage us to “keep calm and carry on.” No matter what winds or rains might rage around us, no matter how challenging the road might seem ahead of us, behind us, beneath us, or around us, we must remind ourselves and each other: Don’t give up.

We must recognize that through it all, we have the right to carry on. We have the right to carry on our desire to be writers, poets, singers, actors, musicians, artists, magicians or anything else that we want to be — anything else that expresses who we are as human beings who happen to be doctors.

I wrote a poem entitled “Turn It On” that encourages the reader or the listener to do just that.

To carry on with those parts of ourselves that make us who we really are. The poem was written initially for convocation for first-year medical students a decade and a half ago. Yet it is still relevant today, and I suspect it will always be relevant. Those who read or hear the poem may decide to pursue those parts of themselves that they have been holding back or had laid aside on the back burner but always really wanted to do or be. That’s the goal of the poem, to help others see that just as I can be a physician and a poet, you too can be multiple things that you perhaps are meant to be.

We must realize that those things we carry on outside of medicine are the same things that help us carry on in medicine. Those days that hit us the hardest, those moments that reach us the most, and those patients that never leave us, can stay with us in our hearts and our art, in our reflections and our thoughts, in our expressions — our medicine.

I started writing towards the end of high school, just for myself — to express my thoughts. I kept writing in college and started sharing it with others, including performance. In medical and graduate school, I then started writing about science and medicine and sharing it with others too. I performed it, published it, displayed it. Then after that, I’ve written and published more.

I love that I get to reflect and write about experiences in medicine and science. I hope you realize that it’s OK for you to do that too. To pursue your form of creative expression that helps you not only release some of what’s inside but also helps you form and give shape, substance, and meaning to what is floating around inside your mind, heart or soul.

See, that’s the key. I write when I’m inspired — about what has inspired me. Then and only then do I write. It’s hard for me to write under pressure on something about which I’m not inspired. However, when I get inspired, I choose to write it down right then, before the inspiration fades. Or I think about it intermittently if I’m not yet sure what I think about the subject or the experience or the memory. I give myself opportunities for reflection, to take my thoughts further and to understand more of what is really forming inside of me in response to my time with the patient and their family. Then, once I get to a point on my journey where I feel I more fully understand my moments with the patient, then I write. I walk down that avenue of reflection and pour my thoughts out onto the paper or into my smartphone. And so, while I pour out so much of myself for others — for my patients — I get to pour out so much for myself when I write, which replenishes me.

What I find even more meaningful about creative expression in medicine is the impact it can have not only on ourselves who create the expression but also on those who are then privy to that expression. Embracing joys and dealing with challenges in life, medicine, or science are universal experiences shared by individuals who find themselves in the roles of patients, caregivers, family members, friends, health professionals, teachers, scientists, or sometimes all of the above. All of these individuals can see themselves in some way in expressions we create in medicine.

The hope is for each person to accumulate a unique experience by viewing oneself directly or someone one has known personally, met, or heard of in each piece that we create, thereby experiencing the piece inevitably somewhat differently from previous viewers. For example, the poem “How Will I Dance?” was written from the potential perspective of a dancer who developed a movement disorder. The poem goes through various concerns and lamentations and concludes that in the end:

My voice is within,
The dance is within.

Doesn’t that apply to all of us as well, albeit in different ways?

So now you know more about how I have chosen to exercise my right to carry on creative expression in medicine. You have that right too. No matter how challenging some days might be, think of those other days — those other moments — that are fulfilling and help you find meaning. Find what replenishes you and schedule those things into your days and nights. Reach out to those you care about and gather strength from those around you, as you mutually encourage them too.

In the words of one of my most popular poems entitled “Just One More Step”:

Just As you could choose to stop,
You could instead choose to step …

Keep on stepping. “Keep calm and carry on.”

Sherry-Ann Brown is a cardiology fellow.

Image credit: Sherry-Ann Brown 

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