A virtual celebration of poetry, prose, and art, which Yale MD, physician assistant (PA) online, physician associate, nursing, and public health students created, took place on May 5, at the annual Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM) Health Professions Students' Creative Medical Writing & Art Contest. One hundred thirty students submitted entries, almost twice as many as last year. With “so many beautiful outstanding pieces,” Assistant Professor of Medicine and Associate Program Director, Traditional Internal Medicine Residency Cynthia Frary McNamara, MD, said selecting winners was particularly difficult. McNamara is serving as interim director of the PHM.
Medicine was a theme in many of the prize-winning works, with students reflecting on the experience of being health professional students, patients, or the loved one of a patient.
Anna Vignola, MMSc, a graduating PA Online Program student, explained that her rotation with a geriatrician inspired her first-place poem, as the sun sets behind our fig tree. Many of the patients Vignola engaged with were accompanied by long-time spouses. In a moment of clarity, she realized how much humans express through behavior, and how little in words. In a fittingly short poem, she depicts her behavior conveying her emotions.
as the sun sets behind our fig tree
I am thankful
for the two little bodies asleep
and for the one on the couch
to whom, in a moment,
I will bring the last fig
of the season
for using up the hot water
and for sometimes
leaving open the kitchen window
so he’ll think of me
as he shuffles through sleep
The authors of the submissions that tied for first place in prose reflect on clinical rotations in their pieces. Rising fourth-year MD student Isaiah Thomas wrote The End of Days a couple months after his rotation in child psychiatry. “I knew that my interactions with the patient that the piece is based on were very emotional and meaningful to me,” says Thomas. “But writing about the experience required that I put into words exactly what that impact was,” and “also forced to me think about the universal aspects of the experience and how it might be meaningful to others.”
In introducing The Judge, seventh-year MD/PhD student Adriana Cherskov shared that it was based on an experience she had at the beginning of her internal medicine rotation several years ago. It centered on a patient—a judge—who was perceived as arrogant, because he insisted on being referred to as a judge. When Cherskov first met him, the judge’s wife pushed a chair towards her, which Cherskov initially declined. The judge told Cherskov that her sitting in a chair made him feel more at ease, explaining that when the medical team hovered over him in white coats discussing him in the third person, it dehumanized him. Cherskov realized the judge was not trying to be treated better than others when he insisted on being called judge, he was just trying to retain his identify and dignity, despite his illness—a lesson that has impacted how she engages all patients.
In several works of art, students were either the loved ones of patients or, themselves, the patient. For example, in Loving with Long Covid, which received second place in poetry, Aaron Phillips, a Class of 2023 PA Online student, beautifully expresses his emotions dealing with his boyfriend being disabled for two years by Long COVID. (Phillips, who said he did not learn how to draw until his didactic year, also received honorable mention in art for his drawing Holding On.) Another Class of 2023 PA Online student, Christina Ruiz, who tied for third place in poetry, explains that she wrote My Choice from personal experience and hoped to reduce the stigma of abortion through it. Her poem ends with, “Today I wasn't a student; I was the patient. A patient with a choice.”
A theme reflected in several works is the struggle to absorb everything being taught in health professional programs. Alex Hauptli, a Class of 2022 Physician Associate Program student, created Drowning—for which he received an honorable mention in art—during his didactic year. Pointing to the image of a person struggling to stay afloat in a sea of medical terms, he explained “this could be anyone studying medicine, and I often identify with the subject.” He added, “I feel like I finally have learned how to swim.”
Third-year MD student Erika Chang-Sing wrote her poem Little Node, which received honorable mention, as she began studying for the Medical Boards. Describing having to relearn all the things she had forgotten, she compares herself to a piece of plant stem that has no roots or leaves, and, in this excerpt, to a cutting from a plant that has leaves, but needs to regrow its roots.
They sit in water, trying to grow roots.
I imagine they are asking themselves
Didn’t I already do this?
Meanwhile, I study for my board exam and ask myself
Didn’t I already learn this?
Shouldn’t I already know this?
Part of me wants to believe I didn’t
Because I don’t.
It scares me how profoundly I forget.
As easily and completely as a scissor’s snip
I remember embryology the same way my plants remember their old roots.
These things that were once ours
They are no help to us now.
We will all just have to start over.
Several students expressed how the arts help them in their health professional studies. For example, first-year MD student Grace Wang, whose painting Weathered received honorable mention, says creating watercolor sketches while hiking “inspires me to observe with patience and wonder not only the beauty of nature, but also the movement embedded in relationships between entities, and the stories hidden in the spaces in between.” Wang finds this particularly valuable in medical school “because it helps me slow down and learn to be a better observer.” Painting also helps Wang feel centered and be at her best when learning how to provide care for others.
“Art and literature provide a complex understanding of the human experience, which is essential to providing empathetic care,” says first-year School of Nursing student Zeynep Inanoglu. Additionally, she explains, dedicating time to read, paint, write, and consume art kept her grounded throughout her first year in nursing school. In her honorable mention painting, Mom and me, she aimed to “to capture the tenderness and adventure of new parenthood” through her parents’ eyes. Inanoglu explains she is able to pursue her passion and become a nurse because of the dedication and resilience of her parents, who made great sacrifices so their children could succeed.
The active “chat” during the event reflected great appreciation for the creative health professional school community, as did statements by the prize winners. For example, noting it would be her last time participating in the contest, Vignola said, “what an honor it is to be part of this contest and community of writers.”
McNamara similarly expressed gratitude for everyone who participated in the contest, as well as PHM Program Manager Karen P. Kolb, MFA, for coordinating it, and the judges: Aba Black, Terry Dagradi, Rosana Gonzalez-Colaso, Melissa Grafe, Lorence Gutterman, Randi Hutter-Epstein, Elizabeth Marhoffer, Kenneth Morford, Sharon Ostfeld-Johns, Muffy Pendergast, Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, Rita Rienzo, Lisa Sanders, Nora Segar, Susan Wheeler, and Joanne Wilcox.
Marguerite Rush-Lerner prizes were awarded to the MD students. PHM funded the other prizes.