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Yale Medical Students Create and Share Poetry, Prose, and Visual Art

May 18, 2019
by Abigail Roth

Ode on a Hospital Bathroom. Not a Publishing Opportunity. Daughters of Medicine. These are titles of three of the 85 poetry, prose, and visual art works that Yale School of Medicine (YSM) medical students submitted for the 2018-19 Marguerite Rush Lerner Creative Writing and Art Contest.

The family of Marguerite Rush Lerner, MD, established and endowed this contest in 1980 to honor Lerner, a highly respected physician, researcher, and mentor at YSM, as well as the first female chief of Yale University Health Services’ dermatology clinic. Lerner also was a successful author of children’s books focused on public health and diversity, and, along with her husband Aaron Lerner, MD, PhD, the first chairman of Yale’s dermatology department, was a strong supporter of YSM student literary activities, including the second-year show. Two of the Lerners’ four sons, Ethan Lerner, MD, PhD ‘82 and Michael Lerner, MD ‘81 attended YSM.

This contest, which YSM’s Program for Humanities in Medicine (PHM) coordinates, provides an opportunity for students who share Lerner’s passions for medicine and the arts to create and showcase their works. When Anna Reisman, MD, associate professor of medicine, became director of PHM in 2015, she was eager to increase participation in the contest, which she had been involved with for many years as a judge. Reisman coordinated with the Lerner family to add visual art to the original categories of poetry and prose. The expanded format, which began in 2018, proved popular: in 2016, there were 32 submissions, one-half poetry and one-half prose; in 2019, 36 of the 85 submissions were in the visual art category, the largest number of submissions among the categories.

Reisman is pleased that this contest attracts both students who participate in other PHM activities and many who have not previously been involved, “the nice thing is that for some, it becomes a connection to PHM, and they do start to take part in more activities.” The first-place finisher in the prose category, Sara (Sora) Tannenbaum ‘19, did not do any creative writing until medical school, but participated in the contest every year, winning prizes in prose and visual art in the past. Tannenbaum, who also has been involved with Murmurs magazine and writing workshops through PHM states, “I have really appreciated the opportunities that PHM has brought to the medical school. It has been a great part of my experience at Yale.”

While each contest entry reflects the individual creator, Reisman sees trends based on where in the medical school journey a student is. “First-year students often write about their anatomy experience because they haven't really had much clinical work yet. The more entrenched in patient care, the more they write about it,” she says. However, Reisman added, many students write or create pieces that have nothing to do with medicine per se, emphasizing the “importance of keeping a sense of self - we are not ‘only’ doctors/trainees once we're in this world.”

Terry Dagradi, Cushing Center coordinator, who was one of the visual art judges, remarked that while some artwork did not have an explicit tie to medicine, she inherently viewed each work through the prism that it was created by a student experiencing medical school. Dagradi was one of fifteen individuals, many with a connection to YSM, who volunteered to judge one or more of the categories.

On May 2, 2019, about 40 people gathered in YSM’s Beaumont Room to hear several poetry and prose finalists read from their works. The five visual art projects that received prizes were on display and a few of their creators spoke to the audience about their artwork.

While the contest winners receive a monetary prize, this year $300 for first place, $200 for second place, and $100 for third place, the prize money is not the significant draw for students entering the contest. Rather, students participate for a variety of reasons, all of which reflect the importance of a creative outlet during the YSM experience.

I didn’t write fiction before medical school. I suppose I started writing because as a medical student you bear witness to a host of such bizarre, otherworldly experiences that are hard to imagine ever having, and even harder to explain to people, especially the confusing emotional valences that the stories carry for you.

Erik Kramer '20

Sophie Chung, who received one of the second-place awards for visual art for Daughters of Medicine and a third-place award for poetry for Sweet, views the contest as a hiatus from the pressures that lead to burnout among many students. Whereas medical students often are defining themselves by how they perform compared to others, the contest is simply a fun chance to share creative expressions. Another advantage for Chung this year: the submission timing was well-aligned with the waiting period between interviews and Match Day, providing a welcome distraction. Chung’s view of the contest aligns with her broader view of the arts. “For me, art and music are important reminders that as much as I love medicine, I'm defined by more than my career,” she says. “They bring me comfort and keep me grounded on my toughest days.”

First-place poetry finisher Cortlandt Sellers’19, who has written poetry and creative fiction since seventh grade, explains, “one of the reasons I enjoy entering my work in the contest is that it provides the opportunity for feedback and the possibility of sharing my poetry with others.” She adds that poetry helps her “further process the experiences that I am struggling to process, to capture the essence of a significant moment, or to play with rhyme and meter and rhythm.”

She describes how she first came up with the title of her prize-winning poem, Ode on a Hospital Bathroom, and then started writing. “After five years of medical school, hundreds of hours spent in the hospital, and likely dozens of hours spent in the hospital bathroom, I have realized that the bathroom is the only place in the hospital where a medical student can be ‘off.’ It is the only place where no one is watching you, the only place where you are not being evaluated, the only place where you can do or think or feel or allow your face to express whatever it is that you feel without the possibility of it negatively affecting patient care or your interpersonal relationships with staff, patients, and patients' families - which can also affect patient care and student learning. The hospital bathroom is where I check and reply to my email, take a 20-second dance break if I need to pump my energy up, and process the deaths of patients.”

Erik Kramer ‘20, about to enter his final year of medical school, similarly uses prose to help him process experiences. “I didn’t write fiction before medical school. I suppose I started writing because as a medical student you bear witness to a host of such bizarre, otherworldly experiences that are hard to imagine ever having, and even harder to explain to people, especially the confusing emotional valences that the stories carry for you. And your understanding of these experiences often changes as you gain more context, or lose granularity of detail.” He continues that “part of it is an attempt to make some sense of the weirdness, and also to reimagine these very emotionally draining experiences in a way that pokes fun at the absurdity of it all.”

Natnael (Natty) Doilicho ‘22, a first-year student, was recognized both with first-place in visual art for Waypoint, which he created with David Nam ‘22, and second-place in poetry for Glean. Doilicho explains how engaging with the arts has helped him as he adjusts to the YSM experience, “for me, creating Waypoint was one of those critical processes in terms of allaying stress and processing my experiences.”

Doilicho describes how “the Rush Lerner contest was a big part of the impetus for the creation of Waypoint," but as he and Nam worked on it, “the piece began to feel like it tackles a broad subject matter about the future and diversity in medicine, and I started thinking of it in those terms and trying to convey a message whether or not it would be ready by the due date of the contest.”

Doilicho explains “the decisions Dave and I made in crafting the appearance of Waypoint were to capture that frenzied search every newcomer to medicine embarks upon to find their place in the story of medicine, and how that may be complicated by identity. I wanted to convey that for many, searching for a template after which to pattern our steps, and feeling that our identity is reflected in the timeless models that precede and surround us, both through stories and portraiture, is difficult. And that should give us pause because to model and to look to our surroundings to inform our self-image is a deep-rooted part of being human.”

While at the other end of her YSM journey, Chung’s work similarly is about identity. She explains, “Magritte is my favorite painter, especially The Treachery of Images - the ‘This is Not a Pipe’ painting. I interpret it as a reminder that so often, there is more to a situation than meets the eye. Imposter syndrome and implicit bias are such important issues, especially for women and minorities, so I wanted to play with the visual expectation of what a ‘doctor’ looks like. Magritte's self-portrait Son of Man floated into my mind, and Daughters of Medicine was a natural progression from that idea.”

Chang Su ’21, who received third-place recognition in visual arts for Light, Life, poetically-described her work to the audience on May 2, "the artwork is a selection from a series of prints made from a template I carved. The template is a linoleum based material that is similar to, but softer than wood. As the amount of paint on paper decreases, the amount of shadow decreases and details increase. Yes, we struggle, we suffer, and we despair. Yet, we continue to try to shatter our shells and break free from the chains. When the first ray of light shines through, our life will blossom, like cocoons becoming butterflies. Even if all we see is darkness, there is hope. "
A broader audience will have the chance to engage with the contest entries. The five visual art pieces that received recognition will temporarily be on display in Cafe Med (367 Cedar Street). And Doilicho, along with Kevin Wang ‘22, who also received second-place in poetry for Ode to Yellow, plan to create an edition of Murmurs, the YSM literary magazine, that will include the written pieces.

Below is the list of finalists in each of the categories.


1st Place - Cortlandt Sellers: Ode on a Hospital Bathroom
2nd Place (tie) - Kevin Wang: Ode to Yellow
2nd Place (tie) - Natnael (Natty) Doilicho: Glean
3rd Place - Sophie Chung: Sweet
Honorable Mention - Kristina Brown: Waiting Women, Writer’s Block; Andrew Silverman: Cerebral Autoregulation; Olivia Dixon Herrington: Landslide


1st Place - Natnael (Natty) Doilicho and David Nam: Waypoint
2nd Place (tie) - Sophie Chung: Daughters of Medicine
2nd Place (tie) - Simone Hasselmo: Labyrinthitis
3rd Place - Chang Su: Light, Life
Honorable Mention - Madison Sharp: Featherleaf; Taylor Ottesen: Am’ma (అమ్మ)


1st Place - Sara (Sora) Tannenbaum: Mrs. Fink
2nd Place (tie) - Erik Kramer: Not a Publishing Opportunity
2rd Place (tie) - Ryan Fan: Tommy
3rd Place (tie) - Ysabel Ilagen-Ying: A Quick Shave
3rd Place (tie) - June Criscione: Thurston Avenue Bridge
Honorable Mention - Olivia Dixon Herrington: These Layers

Submitted by Abigail Roth on May 17, 2019