While the traditional gathering to showcase the winners of the annual Marguerite Rush Lerner Medical Student Creative Writing and Art Contest was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the creativity of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) students who participated remains vibrant. For many of the students recognized for their poetry, prose, and visual artwork, the pandemic has heightened the importance of the arts.
YSM’s Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM) coordinates the contest. Reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis, PHM Director, Anna Reisman, MD, says “right now, more than ever, it's critical to have a way to express our jumble of feelings. The arts provide us with a lens through which we can get a glimpse of the lived experiences of others.” Reisman cites the key role of PHM Manager Karen Kolb in overseeing the contest logistics, including adapting as COVID-19 altered plans.
In 1980, the family of Marguerite Rush Lerner, MD, established and endowed this contest to honor Lerner, a highly respected physician, researcher, and mentor at YSM. Lerner also was a successful author of children’s books focused on public health and diversity. Lerner and her husband, Aaron Lerner, MD, PhD, the first chair of Yale’s Department of Dermatology, were strong supporters of YSM student literary activities. Two of their four sons, Ethan Lerner, MD, PhD ‘82 and Michael Lerner, MD ’81, attended YSM.
Tara Torabi ’20 provides the following context for her poem Tell Me, which received first-place in poetry. “My friend had recently lent me a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry, so sometimes in the afternoon I would visit my patient (who herself wrote poetry) and we would read it together. This poem was a way to honor my memory of the patient, who later passed away, and the conversations we had. The title comes from a line in one of Mary Oliver’s poems: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Torabi wrote the poem to take her mind off the residency application process. “Selecting residencies can be so stressful—you really have to reflect on what kind of doctor you want to be, where you want to live for the next four years, what it is you value. It was coincidentally the perfect time to write a poem, because I was already thinking a lot about some of the interactions and experiences I’ve had during my time at Yale that have really shaped and affected me.”
She adds, “as my classmates and I separate and embark on our solo residencies amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, I don’t doubt most of us feel a certain level of anxiety, uncertainty, or loneliness. I find these are the times we need the arts the most—to give shape to our experiences, to provide wisdom and comfort, and to make us feel like we are not alone.”
Simone Hasselmo ’22, who received first-place for visual artwork with her submission Doctor Bag, explains that last summer she began a graphic novel project advised by John Warner, PhD, Avalon Professor in the History of Medicine, “that delves into my grandfather's experience as a medical student in Germany during WWII and as a medical translator during the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial, seeking to set these stories alongside my own contemporary experiences as a medical student. I created Doctor Bag as a short vignette that could both stand alone and eventually function as a piece of this larger project.”
Creating the comic “definitely provided an opportunity to reflect on my first year and how it had or hadn't changed me.”
Hasselmo, who has loved telling stories through drawings since childhood and honed her comic drawing and writing skills in college, says “I knew I wanted to continue to create comics here at Yale, and the flexibility and creative spirit I felt here were some of the main reasons I chose to come to YSM.” She adds that the faculty have been “incredibly supportive—both Dr. Reisman and Dr. Warner were really enthusiastic when I first went to them with my project idea. It's nice to have outlets like the Rush Lerner contest, too, to give a little push to really finish things up.”
Regarding the disruption caused by COVID-19, Hasselmo describes how “since clerkships were suspended, I've started drafting a comic about my final days in the hospital on my internal medicine clerkship, when things began changing and escalating very quickly. I'm hoping to ultimately wrap this into my larger graphic novel project. It's definitely been a good outlet to take stock of things and start to process everything that's been going on.”
Wyatt Hong ’20 explains that when he was home in Seoul, Korea this winter and spending time with his parents’ 13-year-old dog, Sarang, “I wondered what her life had been like. I wanted to write something about her before she died. Then my grandmother got sick.” This led him to write Sarang, for which he received first-place in the prose category, in which he thoughtfully shares his experiences and feelings related to Sarang’s aging and his grandmother’s health struggles.
For Hong, writing “is both an outlet for and a source of stress.” He wrote for the Yale Daily News during medical school, since “this helped keep the writing going despite the demands of medical training.”
Regarding COVID-19, he adds, “I have been writing every day since the lockdown. Being able to time-travel in one’s head makes quarantine more bearable.”
Anatomy Lab, A Ghost Story; Baby Teeth
Isaiah Thomas ’22, who received second-place in both the prose (Baby Teeth) and poetry (Anatomy Lab, A Ghost Story) categories, was an English major in college, but did not focus on creative writing until medical school, where he found it to be a useful outlet for processing his feelings about school, and more broadly. One reason Thomas chose YSM was because he knew the Yale System would provide him with the flexibility to engage in writing.
Thomas says YSM PHM programs, such as this past fall’s Fiction Workshop, which neurology resident Anna DeForest, MD, MFA, taught, have provided him with helpful small group settings for focusing on and improving his writing. He used the Fiction Workshop last year to develop Baby Teeth, a piece he had begun two years earlier. Baby Teeth is still a work in process; his plan is for 20 vignettes, equal to the number of baby teeth humans have. He describes it as “self-fiction,” the blurry line between fiction and non-fiction, where strange, unresolved incidents from childhood become part of one’s personal folklore.
Thomas wrote Anatomy Lab, A Ghost Story in fall 2019, when asked to read a poem at the YSM ceremony that honors the donors to the Anatomy Lab. He thinks about sound play in all his writing, but especially poetry, and since he was writing this to be read aloud, he concentrated on making it digestible for audiences to hear. He wrote the poem with the donors’ families in mind, so he was intentional about excluding the gory reality of the anatomy lab, instead seeking a sense of dignity with his words.
Thomas expected he would write frequently when rotations were put on hold because of the pandemic, but has found writing difficult, since he typically uses it to process a past experience. However, he is taking an elective developed to fill the clinical rotation schedule gap, COVID-19 Pandemic: ‘History of the Present,’ which Reisman helps facilitate, along with Associate Professor Joanna Radin, PhD; resident Marco Ramos, Jr., MD; doctoral candidate Maya Sandler; and fourth-year MD student Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako. This has enabled Thomas to study the history of art and media during pandemics.
龙蟠橘井 (Long Pan Ju Jing)
Chang Su ’21, spent several months coming up with the idea for 龙蟠橘井 (Long Pan Ju Jing), and about two weeks actually creating it. She explains that this work, for which she received second-place in visual artwork, “both juxtaposes and merges the Chinese and Western symbols of medicine into one piece.” There is both the Rod of Asclepius, a staff with snakes coiling around it, from the Greek god of healing; and dragons wrapping themselves around an orange well, representing guardians of medicine, from a Chinese legend. By joining the symbols, Su wanted “to transcend language and cultural barriers to represent medicine’s universal common goals: to cure, to relieve, to comfort.”
Like Thomas, Su is taking COVID-19 Pandemic: ‘History of the Present’ which has provided her with an outlet to sketch images that help her process her thoughts around the pandemic, such as its worrisome impact on the rate of domestic violence.
Su also curates the art in YSM’s Café Med, and when the campus reopens, plans to display several of the visual artworks submissions.
Louisa Lu ’20 was one of the winners in prose for Leishmaniacal, a creative reflection of her personal experience with a neglected tropical disease. She wrote the first version of it almost five years ago, while taking a college course in creative nonfiction writing, soon after discovering that the mystery skin disease she had endured for many months after spending a summer volunteering in rural Nicaragua in high school was leishmaniasis. Lu says that while it was "distressing and demoralizing" to endure the course of the disease without treatment, "looking back and finally figuring out the diagnosis was both humbling and fascinating." She notes, "it was a startling first-hand recognition of how neglected tropical diseases that affect the poorest people in the world are truly 'neglected'. Writing Leishmaniacal was my way of processing that crazy experience and reflecting on what I could learn from it.”
Lu found it valuable to revisit the piece as she nears graduation from medical school, being reminded that "writing is cathartic for me." She adds, “reflecting on what it was like to be a patient with a disease that left doctors perplexed, to be in a position where I had no idea what I had or when it would get better, has helped inspire my commitment to patient-centered medicine, and to improving global health and access to health care."