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Creative Medical Writing and Art Contest Showcases Talents of Health Profession Students

May 14, 2021
by Abigail Roth

In Chinese, Bian Que means dancing magpies, which symbolizes happiness and good luck. According to Chinese legends, it was the honorary name people gave to the earliest known doctor, who brought life back to the dying and formulated the fundamental diagnostic methods: look, listen, ask, touch.

Fourth-year Yale School of Medicine (YSM) student Chang Su provided this context for her work Yin-Yang Bian Que, which received Honorable Mention, Visual Arts, in the 2021 Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM) Health Professions Creative Medical Writing and Art Contest. As Su explains, her work depicts antagonist images of Bian Que, mirroring the duality of Yin-Yang, a guiding principle in traditional Chinese medicine that Bian Que spearheaded. “As the balance of Yin and Yang is fundamental to good health, Yin-Yang Bian Que serves as a reminder to always strive to treat patients holistically.”

Su’s piece was one of 73 visual art, poetry, and prose entries in the contest, which PHM Director Anna Reisman, MD, described as “beautiful and outstanding.” The winners were celebrated in a May 6 virtual gathering, where several students read or discussed their works.

In previous years, this annual contest only was open to YSM medical students, and originally only included poetry and prose. Reisman expressed her gratitude to the Rush Lerner family for originally creating the fund for creative writing prizes, and for continuing to fund the medical students. This year, Yale MD, physician associate, physician assistant online (PA online), public health, and nursing students all could participate, reflecting, as Reisman stated, “the spirit of interprofessional training” at Yale.

The students’ remarks during the event reflected the important role of the arts in their lives: from helping them process their intense health profession experiences, to bringing them joy. Su says she learned so much from the PHM programs she was part of, and hopes all YSM students will have the opportunity to incorporate the program into their school experience. She adds, “I love art, and I love to share the joy!”

Ladies’ Perfume and Airbag Dust

First-year Yale PA Online student Greg Shields received first-prize in prose for Ladies’ Perfume and Airbag Dust, in his inaugural PHM event. Before going to PA school, Shields was a paramedic, an experience he drew on for his story. In the scene he read, the narrator, a paramedic, has arrived at a horrible car accident involving a young woman, who appears to be dead.

“I closed my eyes again and saw a college graduation that would never happen, a wedding day that would never come, a young mother holding a beautiful baby that would never exist, a middle-aged brunette walking hand in hand with the love of her life; someone she would never meet. . . . I was about to sign the dotted line that would finalize the termination of all those storylines. Her story gets cut off right here in this moment.”

Shields explains the emotional detachment required to be a paramedic is central to his story: the victims and their families are affected for the rest of their lives, while for the paramedic, each call is just part of an ongoing shift. For Shields, “reliving some of these experiences through creative writing is extremely therapeutic. It's an opportunity to really slow down and closely examine the thoughts and emotions I experienced during an event that happened very quickly in real time.”

Shields adds that he did not realize he had a talent for writing stories until he began his educational journey toward PA school in his mid-thirties and “was surprised by how much I enjoyed the process.”

Reconciliation

PA Online student Mary Elliott, who graduates this month, received second-place in poetry for Reconciliation. Elliott started writing poetry as a child and has a PhD in English. While she has not written much poetry since receiving her degree in 1997, a recent Yale-University of College of London poetry competition and this contest inspired her to write.

Reconciliation begins:


Even though it’s pronounced “my-tral” valve,

I mess up and say “mittral” valve time after time.

My-tral,” my preceptor reminds me.

“For mitre—the holy crown—the bishop’s hat.”


I carry this error like a pulsing thrombus

evident only on ultrasound and dark places—for exemplia gratia, the confessional

where long ago the priest sat behind the screen on Saturday afternoons,

exasperated maybe, his silhouetted head in his hands, and listened.


Back then, I could expose my faults unseen.


Reflecting on her experience of medical mispronunciations, Elliott says, “when you think about it, those long flowy generics have so much poetic potential; they’re one big, beautiful word bank just asking for someone to stick them in a sonnet.” On another level, she explains the poem speaks to her experience of starting over as a second-career student and having to learn “Medicine-as-a-Second-Language.” Optimistically, she adds, “sometimes these mistakes inadvertently unlock delightful possibilities for surrealism, inspiration, or laughter—and a good laugh is so often what connects us.”

First Spring and Rabbits

Simone Hasselmo, who is finishing her third-year in the MD program, was working on her two submissions——First Spring and Rabbits, which respectively received first- and second-place in visual arts — independent of the contest. Both works have impressively detailed graphics interspersed with text.

First Spring depicts Hasselmo’s experience in Spring 2020, when people were first being diagnosed with COVID-19 in Connecticut. Suddenly and surreally, she, along with her classmates, were told clinical rotations were halted and life suddenly changed dramatically, as depicted in First Spring’s line, “They sent me home around 3 PM and thus my new life began.”

While Rabbits centers on Hasselmo’s grandfather's experience as a medical translator during the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial, Hasselmo explains, “I actually view both of these works as being part of one larger overarching story about what it means to be a medical student, especially in a time of global crisis.” She plans to take a fifth-year next year working on a graphic novel combining more of her grandfather's stories with her own.

Working on First Spring helped Hasselmo process what was happening. She drew a timeline of the first weeks of the pandemic, by going through her text messages, news articles, and communications from Yale. She adds, “I also think it was immensely helpful and comforting to me to have a project to work on every day during an otherwise really empty period, something to build a routine around and to keep me feeling like myself.”

Separately, Hasselmo is working with the pediatric psychiatric inpatient service at Yale New Haven Hospital to create a coloring book about the experience of inpatient psych hospitalization. She explains, “the hope is that this will help give kids coming into the hospital some sense of what's to come, and also can be used in the process of therapy, as a tool for teaching and reflecting.” This project is another example of the important role humanities play in medicine.


Contest judges: Aba Black, Terry Dagradi, Rosana Gonzalez-Colaso, Lorence Gutterman, Melissa Grafe, Randi Hutter Epstein, Cynthia McNamara, Kenneth Morford, Sharon Ostfeld-Johns, Rita Rienzo, Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, Lisa Sanders, Nora Segar, Susan Wheeler, and Joanne Wilcox.

Contest coordinator: Karen Kolb, PHM manager

Awardees:

VISUAL ART

1st Place Simone Hasselmo YSM 2022 First Spring

2nd Place Simone Hasselmo YSM 2022 Rabbits

3rd Place Julia Cizeski YSN 2021 Cigarette Paper Owl

Honorable Mention Natnael Doilicho YSM 2022 Temporality and Healing

Honorable Mention Chang Su YSM 2021 Yin-Yang Bian Que

Honorable Mention Anastasia Eberhardt YSPH/YSN 2023 Cerberus

PROSE

1st Place Gregory Shields PA Online 2023 Ladies’ Perfume and Airbag Dust

2nd Place Alexandra Kimmel YSM 2022 The Tracer

3rd Place Stephen Ghazikhanian YSM 2022 The Stalker

Honorable Mention Shiliu Wang YSN 2023 The Doorstep

Honorable Mention Callie Ginapp YSM 2023 11/02/2015 After Visit Summary 19-y.o. female cc depression

Honorable Mention Mariko Fujimoto Rooks YSPH 2022 Letters to Myself

POETRY

1st Place Anna Preston YSM 2022 An Odd Affect

2nd Place Mary Elliott PA Online 2021 Reconciliation

3rd Place Mariko Fujimoto Rooks YSPH 2022 Neon Tetra Fish Negro

Honorable Mention Aaron Phillips PA Online 2023 The Other Side of the Front Line

Honorable Mention Anna Vignola PA Online 2022 Human Anatomy

Honorable Mention Andrea Sparr PA Online 2023 Frontline

Honorable Mention Mariko Fujimoto Rooks YSPH 2022 My Name: In Lights

Submitted by Abigail Roth on May 12, 2021