Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

6th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine – Afternoon Session

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So after lunch I read some poems. So did Wendy French (Born in the NHS) and Karen McCarthy Woolf (An Aviary of Small Birds).

I was in good company, certainly.

Then what? 

Wendy French, Rebecca Goss and Donald Singer talked about the Healthy Heart Poetry Project they have established in conjunction with the Cardiovascular Research Trust (CVRT). Basically children from participating schools learn about heart health and then write poems about it. Sounds simple, but I’m sure it isn’t! Last year some of the poems got made into an anthology, Love Your Heart, which is available from the Hippocrates Press. It contains classic lines like “A healthy heart will keep you glad/A fatty heart will make you sad” (by M.M. aged 12 – out of the mouths of babes eh?), and “Listen to the beat of your boom boom heart/Let’s get healthy, let’s make a start!” (by O.H. aged 10 – move over Benjamin Zephaniah; George the Poet…). There is an annual Healthy Heart Poetry event at which the children get to read their poems and the schools get given awards. It’s all very good stuff: entertaining and worthwhile. I might even do some workshops myself.

Then Giskin Day from Imperial College, London, gave a very interesting talk about using poetry in medical education. We had already heard from one of her talented medical humanities students (Henry Verrall) earlier in the day. She discussed the difficulties faced by those wishing to incorporate the arts and humanities into medical education. Medical students have a lot of facts to learn, and if they have any spare time they are generally running around trying to do research or get a poster or publication under their belt. However medical educators are beginning to realise the value of the humanities, including poetry, for helping students to develop the “three R’s”: reflection, resilience and resonance. Reflective practice is a big buzzword nowadays, and all students and practicing doctors are required to prove they are reflective practitioners. Of course, if they are not naturally reflective, then how do we teach them to be? How do we teach the kind of deep introspection that is necessary: the focus on the details of events; the attention to narrative and emotion? Obviously I agree with Giskin that poetry has a unique role to play here. It isn’t enough to tell people to reflect. We must have an answer to the question of what do we do when they can’t?

Resilience is an interesting quality too: the ability to withstand stress and to return to one’s original form after a hammering. It’s all very well pointing out that doctors need it – medicine is an inherently stressful occupation – but how do we develop it when it is not there? They say that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Like our bones which increase in density in response to exercise, so we become more resilient only by experiencing  difficulty and surviving it, learning from it, and learning (most importantly) that we can survive it. It’s a difficult one, since most medical students come from comfortable backgrounds where they have been nurtured and enabled to study and pass lots of exams. There are probably two answers: firstly, you can read about the experiences of others. Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Introduction, p.xi. Vintage 2014) says “Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.” Reading helps us enter into other worlds, and have experiences alongside the people/characters we are reading about. It won’t change the fact that, secondly, when students and junior doctors do encounter challenges (as they inevitably will) they need a good support structure, compassionate leadership and nice friends, but it may give them something to fall back on – poems to read that tell them they are not alone, the memory that once somebody told them they could pick up a pen and write, and share that writing, rather than drown their sorrows in an attractive bottle of red.

But what about resonance? This is not something commonly talked about in medical education, arguably because it is diametrically opposed to the detached professionalism that is generally accepted as ideal in the doctor-patient relationship. A bit like two violin strings vibrating in harmony, so establishing emotional resonance with another human being is the key to empathic understanding. Again, it is the ability to enter into another person’s emotional world: to walk beside them rather than to observe them walking. This, again, is something reading can help us to do in a very unique way. It can help us to overcome our narrowness and judgementalism, and to think what it might be like to have been born here, when we were in fact born far over there. We cannot live 100 lives, but we can read 100 books.

The last speaker for the day was Vikky Riley, specialist cancer nurse at University College Hospital, London – ably assisted by Wendy French: poet in residence at the Macmillan Cancer Centre. They run writing groups for cancer patients, and Vikki talked about how cancer patients often felt like their cancer took over their whole day-to-day life and also their sense of identity. Writing was a lifeline for some of them.

After a Q&A with the afternoon’s speakers and a spot of tea, it was time for the Hippocrates Prize awards ceremony. Donald Singer has already written lots about all the judges and the winning and commended poets and their poems, so I’m not going to re-invent the wheel here. Do head on over to his blog now if I haven’t bored you to tears already, or you could even visit the Hippocrates Prize YouTube channel, and listen to some of the poems in real time!

Then what? We drank some wine and ate some canapes and some of us went out for a very nice dinner at Ethos Foods near Oxford Circus. Oh, and I signed a few books too ;-)

2 Comments

  1. Hello Ellen,
    I heard you read at the Hippocrates Symposium and hence bought a copy of ‘Rupture.’ Didn’t get it autographed though! Just want to say that I have been enjoying it ever since. I think it’s a terrific collection. Thank you.

    Ann Jay

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