What medicine can learn from a poem

On Inaugural Day, January 20th, 2021, Amanda Gorman eloquently recited her poem “The Hill We Climb.”. Instantaneously, she electrified a nation that resonated deeply with her words. For many, she became the highlight of the Inauguration as she revived an appreciation for poetry and the meaning it can create. Through the nuanced phrases and occasional rhymes, she portrayed her own feelings and passions regarding the state of our nation. In her wake, she captured ours.

I myself also enjoy writing, often late at night after getting home from medical school rotations. It is a form of catharsis to purge out feelings and stressors that I have layered inside of me hidden under an unrevealing face. In a way, it becomes an act of meditation or even ritual to iron out and organize the morphic workings of my mind into something simple, creative, and truly my own. Although I would not dream of reaching the skill and impact that Amanda Gorman so successfully displayed, because of her, I found myself writing more often and more honestly. I also searched through some dusty books of poetry on my table that I have been long neglecting. This “Gorman effect” that her poem set into motion declares a fundamental and important truth – words have power.

Medicine has recently become more aware of this power. Narrative medicine specifically has offered to us the untapped resource of the vital role that words have on health. As a result, the field has left the medical world’s fringes and found its way more engrained in its core practice. The importance of medical humanities is because the field not only represents human experience but is intrinsically a human experience. Additionally, through the expression of creative works, bridges of empathy are formed and solidified between medical practitioners and patients. These connections further exist even among practitioners themselves, creating a commonality and unified sense of kinship.

Furthermore, few areas of medicine are as versatile as narrative medicine. A clot requires anticoagulation, a broken bone requires splinting, and a wound requires stitching. However, in scenarios that narrative medicine can be employed, the goal is neither as emergent nor as specific as finding the quickest, most life-saving treatment. The goal instead is to improve quality of life. Certainly, narrative medicine should not override but rather supplement contemporary medical practice. As a result, the narratives become both a modality for and an outcome of better health to any person willing.

Beyond the realms of narratives, words have power in medicine in even the simplest of interactions. Miscommunication is a well-documented issue that presents challenges and frustrations that inhibit appropriate and effective medical management. The efforts to mitigate this issue should not just be a confrontation of a problematic situation but also a prevention of future similar situations. This prevention must begin in the earliest days of a physicians’ training, which is medical school. More and more, medical students are trained on how to best communicate with both patients and each other. Under guidance, we gain awareness to use our words for good and understand that a patient’s words are an insight into their health. With so much of medicine hinging on proper understanding, why would communication training not be a priority?

Medicine can learn from Amanda Gorman’s poem that is unbelievably making poetry mainstream. However, the core feature of poetry has always been mainstream since we continually use our words to express our experiences. Our expression is an act of our individual humanity that can then lead to comradery and unification. With this understanding, we can unhinge medicine from a history of neglecting the utility of words beyond just medical terminology. Perhaps then we can embrace words as one of our most powerful tools.

Thomas L. Amburn is a medical student. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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