Mortality. Racism. Anxiety. Growth. Awe. Beauty. These were among the many themes explored in the annual Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM) Health Professions Students' Creative Medical Writing & Art Contest. For the first time in four years, the winners shared their entries at an in-person gathering, held on May 4. More than 80 students from across Yale’s health profession schools and programs—MD, MD-PhD, Physician Associate, Physician Assistant Online, Nursing, and Public Health—submitted entries. Fifteen YSM faculty, staff, and affiliates volunteered as judges for three categories—poetry, prose, and art.
In opening remarks, Professor and PHM Director Anna Reisman, MD, thanked the Rush Lerner family, who funded the original iteration of this contest—the Marguerite Rush Lerner Medical Student Creative Writing Contest. Several years ago, the contest was expanded to its current format. Reisman also expressed gratitude to students for submitting “so much fine work,” and for putting their full selves into their creations and out there in public, which, she acknowledged, “is not easy.” Prize-winning students contextualized their work for the audience and, in the poetry and prose categories, read their pieces. They also highlighted their diverse sources of inspiration and approaches to the creative process.
For example, Brooks Leitner, MD-PhD Class of 2024, explained that he created his second-place art entry, Intensive Care, as he finished his clerkship year, during which he observed patients in the surgical and medical intensive care units. “I saw medicines, machines, lines, and more that took over every critical bodily function of our patients,” he said, “with the goal of supporting the ability to treat underlying causes like infections or trauma.” This raised questions in his mind such as “Will they ever return to the same quality of life they had before this?” and “Are these machines truly temporary extensions of human physiology?” In the piece, he wanted to depict the interconnectedness of human organs, and also “the extension of the vessels that connect our organs to intricate machinery. Ultimately, I found myself truly envisioning the lines blurring between natural and artificial human physiology.” He hopes Intensive Care will evoke similar feelings of “awe, uncertainty, and even uneasiness,” in others to what he felt performing neurological exams on patients in the ICU.
The Donor and Daycare
Hannah May, MD Class of 2026, tied for first place in prose for The Donor and Daycare, in which she movingly portrays her thoughts and emotions as she shifted between dropping her fourteen-month-old daughter off at daycare and dissecting a body donor (whom she calls Bob) as a first-year medical student. May, the only member of her class with a child, says the dissonance between young children playing at daycare and dissecting cadavers in the anatomy lab was hard to process, including the blurring of lines between life and death. She began wondering, for example, what other daycare parents would think of her if they knew what she was doing between drop-off and pick-up. The contest prompted her to write about what she had been reflecting on for months, and once she started, she composed the 650-word piece in a single night. “Because, in truth, the harsher thought is that Bob was like my daughter once. This old person whose face I liked to keep covered, whose tissue I pried apart, whose heart I had cut out of his body, was born a baby, had grown up into a boy, became a man who likely had children of his own,” is one poignant example of her reflections.
Birth & Letter to a younger universe
Anna Preston, MD-MPH Class of 2023, received first-place (tie) in poetry for Birth, and also earned an honorable mention in the same category for Letter to a younger universe. Her approach to writing each poem “couldn’t have been more opposite,” she says, explaining she is typically a slow writer, except when she needs to express something, as when she wrote Birth and her thoughts spilled out. Preston’s first clerkship component during her M2 year was in obstetrics & gynecology. She was new to the hospital environment, and she wrote the poem as she was trying to process the experience of being a stranger with access to patients’ intimate experiences. In contrast, she wrote Letter to a younger universe over five years, starting it as an M1 and finishing as she is about to graduate. She mainly added to it over time as thoughts came to mind—versus rewriting the text over time. Given the time lapse, she feels like she was the recipient of the letter mentioned in the poem when she started it, and now is the letter writer.
Kristin Brockler, a student in the Yale Physician Assistant Online Class of 2023, received first-place (tie) in prose for Prologue, which is the prologue to an adult fiction book she is writing about a war among three countries. It is designed to introduce the reader to a mystery with the hope they will want to learn more. Between school and having two toddlers, Brockler has little time for herself and writes at night after her kids go to sleep if she is done studying. “The majority of my writing has been technical and scientific in nature,” Brockler says, “but I have this creative side of me that is dying to come out. I’ve just never had the opportunity.” She adds that writing during school helps her decompress and disconnect. “It’s fun to immerse yourself in an alternate reality. It feels like an escape. The characters become like old friends in this fantastical world I’ve created and I feel a sense of comfort coming back to them.”
Winning a prize was especially nice for Brockler since in high school she had been told she was a bad writer, and it was not until college that professors encouraged her to write. She hopes to have time to finish the book and “really do it justice. Then my plan is to find a publisher who is willing to work with me. That’s my ultimate dream.”