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Medical School Student-Poets

September 04, 2019
by Abigail Roth

Since 2011, Yale University and University College London (UCL) medical school students have participated in the Yale-UCL Medicine Poetry Competition, with prize money of £1000 for first place and £500 for runners-up. While this may seem like an unusual annual event, the story behind the contest’s creation and its impact on students demonstrate its significant educational and emotional-wellness value.

John Martin, MD, F Med Sci, a professor at UCL and an adjunct professor at Yale School of Medicine (YSM)—who initiated the competition—did not start writing poetry until age 45, but humanities, art, and music always played a big role in his life, and he studied philosophy before studying medicine. This background helped shape his belief that to be a full human being, one should learn about science and the arts, and that this is particularly important for medical school students, who will be applying science to human patients. Martin is concerned about the increased focus, in the United Kingdom and the United States, on quantitative over qualitative competencies; if students just focus on numbers, he says, they risk losing their ability to engage in abstract qualitative thinking, which is needed to diagnose patients effectively.

Martin believes the abstract nature of poetry improves qualitative thinking, and that writing poetry enables medical students to connect with their inner selves openly and honestly, which helps them be attuned to patients’ emotions, and to openly and honestly communicate with them.

When Martin launched the contest, he thought he would be lucky if he received 10 entries. Instead, there were 120, and have been around 100 each year since. A few years after the competition began, UCL’s vice dean of engineering approached Martin about expanding it to engineering students, concerned engineering curricula also was becoming overly focused on quantitative training; Martin was pleased to include them. (Ninety-five percent of entries still are from medical school students.)

While some students are experienced poets, several have told Martin the competition was their catalyst to experiment with poetry. Martin says most poems fall into three themes: the hospital experience with patients; death; and love and personal relationships that are unrelated to medicine.

A chance meeting in 2011 helped sustain the contest. Martin attended the Yale-Harvard football game and happened to sit next to Mark Singer, Yale College ’72. When Martin told Singer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, about the competition, Singer, unsolicited, offered to fund the prize money, support that continues today. Martin, who initially donated the prize money himself, says that anyone interested in supplementing Singer’s philanthropy would discover that a small investment has a large impact: helping develop future doctors with a broader perspective on the human condition.

This year, students could enter up to three poems, on any topic. Martin; Tim Beasley-Murray, PhD, associate professor, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies; Thomas Duffy, MD, YSM professor emeritus of medicine; and Anna Reisman, MD, YSM associate professor of medicine and director, Program for Humanities in Medicine, served as judges. The judging was blind and subjective, based on rating the poetic composition, and its emotionally impact on the reader.

In addition to awarding first and second prizes, the judges awarded several “proxime accessit” or runner-up certificates, due to the “exceptionally high standard of poems that deserved distinction.” (A complete list of awardees is below.)

Tara Torabi, YSM ’20, a proxime accessit awardee, echoes Martin’s thoughts on the self-reflective value of poetry. “After leaving the hospital, it’s very comfortable to just go home and study or relax and ultimately forget about your day. Writing poetry requires a lot of reflection, and that can be a real challenge when you’d rather not reflect on your patient who is getting sicker, or the moment when you questioned your abilities, or that interaction which made you uncomfortable. We hide so much of ourselves as medical students, it’s unbelievable. Ultimately, I realize it’s important to confront and clarify all of these feelings and experiences, and poetry is one way in which I can do that.”

And like Martin, she ties poetry to connecting to a patient as a human. “One could argue that the poet and the physician are both interested in the same thing, that is the person, and his or her experience of being,” she says. “As a medical student, I’ve realized that medicine is a profession which constantly forces you to face what it is to be human, to navigate waves of sadness, suffering, fear, and joy alongside your patients.”

Torabi continues, “there are patient histories of surgeries and prior illness which we document so carefully in electronic medical records, but there are also more true and profound histories–the ones delicately hidden in the interactions with every patient we ever meet, in those precious minutes not spent answering calls or with our eyes fixated on a computer screen. They are the histories which exemplify what it means to be human, and they are their own forms of poetry. To convey the essence of these stories through my own written poetry has been a great challenge, but also a great honor.”

Reisman, reflecting on her own years in medical school and residency, describes how poetry “was a great mode of expression because the days could be chaotic with no reliable blocks of time to write something longer. The emotional intensity and brevity of poetry can fit those years well.”

Sophia Francesca Gamez, YSM ’22, explains that her poem, Five by Five in Anatomy Lab, for which she received a proxime accessit certificate, helped her process why what bothered her most her first few days in the anatomy lab was seeing the donor’s hands uncovered. “I asked myself why was this particular part of his body so upsetting to me? Why did it feel so intimate when they were visible? From there I began exploring the different manifestations of human connection, whether it's physically connecting with your hands, the different forms that can take, or in a more abstract sense, how human connection can impact someone's life or how they impact our life. It was a wonderful creative outlet and it really helped me work through some of the complex emotions that came up during that experience.”

A book of the 100 best poem submissions since the competition began is being compiled.

One could argue that the poet and the physician are both interested in the same thing, that is the person, and his or her experience of being. As a medical student, I’ve realized that medicine is a profession which constantly forces you to face what it is to be human, to navigate waves of sadness, suffering, fear, and joy alongside your patients.

Tara Torabi, YSM '20


1st prize: Charlotte Leigh, Snakes and Ladders (UCL Medical School)

2nd prize: Jia Zhe Su, Pagan of the Good Times (UCL Medical School)

Proxime Accessit:

· Natty Doilicho, Glean (Yale School of Medicine)

· Sophia Francesca Gamez, Five by Five in Anatomy Lab (Yale School of Medicine)

· Alexis An Yee Low, Dice (UCL Medical School)

· Jia Zhe Su, Place of Hearts and Parse Poetica (UCL Medical School)

· Isaiah Thomas, Trepanation, or a Room with a View (Yale School of Medicine)

· Tara Torabi, My Father (Yale School of Medicine)

Submitted by Abigail Roth on September 04, 2019