Prescription poetry

Author: Susan Guibert '87, '93M.A.

Dr. Ken Anderson says symptoms of right-brain atrophy set in early.

“It begins to develop when we’re about 5 or 6 years old, when we’re rewarded largely for knowing things that are scientific or mathematical.” says the nephrology/transplantation surgeon and vice president of Memorial Health System in South Bend. “Those rewards, then, build in filters that make us think more and more like scientists and less and less like well-rounded individuals—so by the time we get to medical school, we’re rewarded for thinking inside the box.”

Currently, Anderson’s right-brain prognosis is excellent as he and several other physicians nurture their creative sides in the Med Poets Society, a joint effort between Notre Dame and Memorial Health System in South Bend.

Formally known as the Memorial-Notre Dame Humanities Project, the program offers physicians the opportunity to take classes on campus taught by faculty in the English, music, and film, television and theatre departments.

Recognizing a growing need among medical professionals to nurture the skills of empathy and self-reflection, to gain better insight into suffering and the human condition, a group of physicians from Memorial Hospital pitched the idea of taking a humanities class to their foundation board, which agreed to underwrite the program. Stephen Fredman, chair of Notre Dame’s English department, taught the first class of the Med Poets Society in spring 2004—an eight-week poetry and prose course.

“I had no preconceived notions,” says Fredman. “I just wanted to see where they could go with it.”

Fredman’s first assignment to his new group of students was to discuss a poem by William Carlos Williams, a widely published physician/poet.

“There was a particularly challenging passage in the poem, and I asked the class ‘When you read it on your own, what did you do when you came to that difficult passage?’”

Most said they simply skipped over it. Fredman then fully recognized the challenge of putting a dozen doctors in a situation where _not _understanding is a virtue.

The next assignment: bring to class some of their own poetry or prose and spend time talking about it. After that session, Fredman encouraged his students to “dig deeper” with one portion of their work.

“[W]hen he challenged us to write, to create, that really opened up a kind of vulnerability we’re not used to,” Anderson says.

“If someone asks me a question about asthma, I give them an answer. I have the information and can explain it, knowing that I could hold my own,” says Dr. Gary Fromm, a pulmonology/critical care specialist and director of Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit. “But to talk about prose or poetry, let alone write, I felt ridiculous.”

Fredman recognized that the extra step of digging deeper may have pushed these doctors out their comfort zones, but it opened up a window of their own intellectual life. "They could talk to each other in a way that is not usual in a clinical setting, to work as a group, that sense of collective endeavor.

“Reading a poem is like coming up with a diagnosis—and allowing themselves to come up with a collective diagnosis is tricky,” Fredman adds. “They had the ability to reflect on their own experience, and that sense of self-discovery helped in patient care.”

Anderson says the the classes “changed relationships physicians have with one another. We recognize a new vulnerability that allows us to be more human with one another. And with that vulnerability, that humanness, physicians can be more human with their patients and patients’ families.”

Fromm’s medical training and specialization in critical care have put him face-to-face with dying patients—and their loved ones—every day for the past 25 years and forced him to confront daily those larger, transcendent issues of life, death, compassion and suffering.

“None of my formal education in the ’70s prepared me for dealing with those issues, but meeting with a medical ethics committee every month for 20 years began to open my mind to these larger questions.”

Participation in the Med Poets Society, with its discussion of literature, poetry and the arts, also helped, Fromm says. “I can better appreciate that guiding a patient through a ‘nice death’ is just as important as guiding a patient to a cure.”