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Issue Date: March 21, 2004


Physician, heal thyself -- through verse

Writing poems helps doctors connect with the touchy-feely side of patient care.

By Kathleen Conroy

Family doctor Peter Pereira relies on medical knowledge to attend to his mostly poor, elderly, immigrant patients at the High Point Medical Clinic in Seattle. But Pereira, whose poetry is collected in the recent award-winning book "Saying the World" (Copper Canyon Press, $14), believes the art of writing verse helps him ease others' suffering, and his own. "The clinical experience is so intense that you can burn out," says Pereira, 44. "Poetry keeps me in balance and in touch with my feelings [and] my humanity."

Poetry can help doctors "confront the intense pain and profound love they'll encounter working with patients."

He also sees poetry as a way for clinical-thinking medical professionals to sharpen their attentiveness to patients. Pereira -- who beat out more than 1,000 other contenders to win the 2002 Hayden Carruth Award for emerging poets, which led to the publication of his first book of poems last fall -- is among a growing number of health-care professionals reading and writing verse these days.

"Ten years ago, only a handful of physicians were writing poems and submitting them for publication," says Charlene Breedlove, poetry editor of the "Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)". Now Breedlove receives hundreds a year from doctors who polish their verse at writing workshops and classes geared to the emotional side of dealing with life and death on a daily basis. Physician-penned poetry also appears in other medical journals, such as "Annals of Internal Medicine" and "The Lancet," and increasingly in mainstream poetry journals like "The Virginia Quarterly Review and Poetry."

This summer, "JAMA" will publish the winning poem in an inaugural poetry contest open to medical students. Pioneering heart surgeon and longtime poetry fan Michael E. DeBakey, 88, sponsor of the contest, still holds popular poetry readings at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Ed Fann, who teaches pharmacology and medicine at Baylor, routinely references poetry and other literary genres in teaching medical concepts; the school even offers an elective course called Poetry and Medicine. "Involvement with the arts prepares medical students to confront the intense pain and profound love they'll encounter working with patients," Fann says.

Harvard physician-poet Rafael Campo, who believes poetry is potent medicine, has written several books on the topic. "Curing and healing are not the same, and it is possible to achieve the latter without succeeding in the former," Campo wrote in last year's book "The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry." He attests to poetry's healing powers in his own patients.

By fostering the "medical humanities," advocates hope to counter medicine's clinical detachment. "The practice of any art, including poetry, is self-healing," Breedlove says. "The ability to investigate his own feelings is one thing that makes a healer who connects with patients."

Weekend with ... Peter Pereira
We asked noted a physician-poet to compose an exclusive work for USA WEEKEND readers, using the word "weekend."

Weekend Healing
I like my attitude at this altitude.
The pool is open, but nobody
is swimming. I want to be better,
not bitter. I'm looking
for my armchair shaman, my
couch physician. Why do
today what you can
put off until tomorrow?
After all, an aphorism
keeps the dogma away.

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