For Lorenzo Sewanan, poetry begins as an image. “When a moment or a conversation brings an image to mind, even an imaginary one … that’s what poetry is good at capturing.” He jots down those moments and scenes that spark inspiration onto his iPhone, to return to them later. Speaking with a fellow medical student, Sewanan was inspired to write a poem called “Reflex,” which was included in the third volume of Murmurs, the student literary magazine. The poem describes a woman willing a man’s legs to respond to a reflex test, only to realize that she must tell him that he will never walk again. This image came to Sewanan when a friend described the challenges of studying neurology. “There’s a hesitation people have about going into the field of neurology, which is that you become very good at diagnosis, but you can’t do much to treat people,” says Sewanan, an award-winning poet who often contributes to Murmurs.
When Sewanan, a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. student, and a few of his friends decided to start a literary magazine as first-year students, they weren’t sure who else would contribute. The group included Jacob M. Izenberg, M.D. ’14; Christine Sunu, a former medical student, now a hardware and software interface designer in San Francisco; nursing student Olivia Ackerman; and Matthew Meizlish, also a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program.
“We just wanted to see what was out there,” says Sewanan. It took a year to get the magazine started. Anna Reisman, M.D., associate professor of medicine and director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine, offered her support. Izenberg paid for the journal’s domain name, yalemurmurs.squarespace.com, in its first year and Reisman has since secured funding for the domain and a print issue. Now, four years later, Murmurs is thriving, publishing about 30 student works of poetry, visual art, and prose every year. The magazine has about 20 contributors and a team of editors, all of them students in the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, and the School of Public Health. “It was the first-years, including Patrick Huang, Kristina Klara, Maria Korah, and others who were instrumental in getting the magazine published this year,” Sewanan said. And this year, for the first time, the students published a print edition. The previous two collections were released electronically on iBook.
Students contribute everything from deeply felt stories about personal experiences to striking pieces of art. The most common submissions are poetry. “A lot of moments in medical school are sharp and poignant,” says Huang, who serves as poetry editor. “Sometimes it’s something you want to quickly express as opposed to a long, drawn-out narrative.” Sewanan has a different theory. “Maybe medical students don’t have enough time to write long pieces of prose,” he joked.
But Sewanan agrees that “medicine is extremely dramatic.” It’s important, he feels, to have a healthy way to manage the stress and anxiety that can come with caring for people’s health, and Murmurs provides an outlet for students to express the moments that can weigh on them.
Haunting moments in the life of Melissa Thomas found their way to Murmurs as both poetry and prose. A second-year medical student and a former Army officer who served in Iraq, she hasn’t taken a formal writing class since she was a child. When she came to Yale, she signed up for a creative writing group and began telling the stories that her mother had encouraged her to write down for years. “Not a Quiet Day” tells of an IED exploding under her vehicle in Iraq. In “Dignity in the Desert,” she describes the last moments of an interpreter mortally wounded in a bomb blast. Sharing stories about her time in the military is Thomas’ chance to encourage young girls to pursue the opportunities that await them in the military and to reflect on her own experiences. “The process of thinking through things and getting past the fear of sharing is liberating,” says Thomas.
Huang notes that writing and art also provide a way to connect with patients and their peers. “When you talk to patients, it’s good to find shared experiences,” he says. “Having an outlet to reflect on stories from your past gives you a great connection to people you meet down the road.”
The submissions don’t have to be about medicine, although many of them are. One student detailed her relationship with her mother. Another student wrote of a man who left his family and flew to another country after receiving a warning of danger from the FBI.
In their “Who We Are” page, the editorial staff points out the connection between the humanities and the practice of medicine: “We are taught that auscultation is more of an art than a science: that the sound of the heart likens itself to music and poetry in its different rhythms, and that the student must immerse himself into the sound of the heart murmur as one would sit listening in the center of a symphony.”