By Irene Planchard Mathieu, a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University
Being a medical poet has often meant poetic isolation, immersed as I am in the intense educational world of medicine. I have felt very isolated jotting down lines between patients during busy days in the hospital or writing in my apartment after long nights of studying. Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend my first poetry workshop, a two-week immersive experience in Rhode Island. It was like opening the door to the little closet in which I’ve been writing alone and seeing that my small room is part of a sprawling, underground mansion where so many beautiful souls live, each one in a different room, who decorate the mansion’s rock walls with studded jewels and feathers and scraps of cloth.
On the last night of workshop a fellow poet asked me about the parallels between medicine and poetry. I began with the response that I have explicated elsewhere, but as I spoke I realized that my answer had evolved significantly as a result of the past two weeks. It isn’t just that poetry and medicine both offer a window into the totality of human experience, an intimacy with the human condition that few other professions offer.
Just as there are an “art and science” of medicine, there are both art and science in poetics. I often describe the role of science in medicine as analogous to the role of language in human communication. The point of learning another language usually isn’t simply for the love of language itself (although certainly that love is real and important and can be part of the motivation). Usually the primary purpose of mastering language is for communication, just as a deep understanding of science allows us to use medicine in the service of other people. The memorization of medications and amino acids does not a competent physician make. But this fund of knowledge is the language we use to navigate disease and to describe health and illness. Similarly, strong vocabulary, understanding of literary symbols and devices, and grammatical knowledge are the tools of meaning-making in poetics.
There are systematic ways to approach reading and writing poetry. I can dissect a poem in order to understand or edit it. There is basic anatomy that must be grasped before we can understand poetry or create great work. In poetry, anatomy consists of form, literary devices, symbols, and metaphors. These and other components provide the framework for the poem’s content. As physicians, we must understand the parts of our patients’ bodies – how individuals’ organs do or don’t function, what is “normal” for each person. But we also must remember that a person is not simply her or his body. A person has a body. Who a person is is analogous the content of the poem.
In medicine and poetry, in order to break the rules effectively we have to learn them thoroughly. Learning medicine in a classroom and practicing medicine in a clinic or hospital are two very different things. In the classroom we learn basic rules, mechanisms, and protocols. But rarely do patients fit our textbook definitions. And when they do, their diseases rarely occur in isolation. In clinical settings we have to account for patients’ other ailments and medications, medical history, age, sex, body weight/size, psychosocial conditions, values and goals, etc. Given this, what are the chances that we can do exactly the same thing the same way for every patient with ostensibly the “same” disease? Good physicians learn the textbook rules so they can understand when and how to adapt the knowledge to individual circumstances. Good poets learn the rules of poetry – about structure, form, use of literary devices, grammar – before they can break them to great effect.
Poetry and medicine are both a practice. They must be done consistently to be done well and require lifelong learning. In order to become a better poet you have to become a better reader. In order to improve as a doctor, you have to keep studying and learning about developments in the field. This is the duty of the committed poet or physician. It’s one aspect of professionalism. Professionalism also requires love of the field – a commitment to the evolution of scientific knowledge or of poetics. It requires being a team player – as a medical colleague, an editor, or a mentor to trainees in medicine and in poetry. It requires integrity; in both fields, this means checking our egos frequently and thoroughly.
Of course, poetry and medicine have many differences. I do believe poems have the power to heal and that poetry can be a matter of life and death; why else would so many brutal governing regimes around the world exile prominent poets time and again? Why else would words be censored in times of unrest? But poems are not people. Art imitates life, or vice versa, but art isn’t synonymous with life, and relating to patients is a completely different experience from relating to poems. While I have spent the last several years learning how to do the former, my poetry workshop was an intense course on how to do the latter. For a physician, patients must always come first. For me, poetry happens to come second. I believe the discipline, objective analysis, commitment, integrity, and heart required in each field can fortify my practice of the other.
You’re a doctor. What is this poetry-writing thing? People wonder, though are usually too polite to put the question quite so baldly. Poetry? A pretty pointless way to spend one’s time, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you be out saving lives? Or something?
What good, really, is a song, or a painting? Why pick a blue-glazed platter when a cheap plastic one will do? All I can really say is that beauty, arranging things in an interesting way, creating useful or intriguing patterns, is simply something humans do, an essential part of being who we are.
As physicians, we are extraordinarily privileged, instantly taken into the lives of patients, their friends and families, often in very sad and tragic times. We see human bodies, inside and out, and hear how people make do, how they tell their stories, how they cope—or don’t—with loneliness or disability. We have our own stories to tell, inside the hospital and at home, living in this brilliant and fractious world.
So why do doctors do creative stuff? Because that’s what human beings do, and, lord knows, we have a lot to be creative about. So why poetry? Well, for no good reason. I just like words, the jangling sounds and rhythm of words, the meanings we stretch between them. I just do.
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCSFamily & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Thanksgiving is a festival harvest holiday meant to celebrate and be thankful for whatever you feel you’ve been blessed with (good health, family, friends, raises, completing a goal, etc…). And in its current form, Thanksgiving is filled with wonderful (and delicious!) traditions, such as watching the Macy’s Day Parade, or football games, and cooking a giant feast with cranberries, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and the famous Turkey. One tradition associated with the turkey is the wishbone (which all turkeys and chickens have), where two people each take hold of the ends of the bone, they make a wish, and pull! Whoever has the larger part of the bone gets their wish. Turkey for Thanksgiving has become such a famous tradition that Thanksgiving is even sometimes called “Turkey Day.” Each year, the President of the United States pardons a live turkey at a White House ceremony, allowing the turkey to live out the rest of its life on a farm.
Having a cooked turkey is a staple tradition of Thanksgiving but there are some important things to know when cooking your Thanksgiving bird this year.
- Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds when thawing your turkey in the refrigerator.
- When thawing in cold water, allow approximately 30 minutes per pound and change the water every 30 minutes.
- When roasting your turkey, set the oven temperature no lower than 325° A whole turkey is safe to eat when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F measured with a food thermometer.
- Always wash hands, utensils, the sink, and anything else that comes into contact with the raw turkey and its juices.
- For fresh turkeys, allow 1 pound of turkey per person, buy your turkey only 1-2 days before you plan to cook it, keep it stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook, and do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys.
- For frozen turkeys, allow 1 pound of turkey per person and keep frozen until you’re ready to thaw it. Turkeys can be kept frozen in the freezer indefinitely; however cook within a year for best quality!
- When storing your leftovers, discard any turkey, stuffing, and gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours, 1 hour in temperatures above 90°F. Divide leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerate in shallow containers. Eat refrigerated leftovers within 3 to 4 days after initial cooking.
By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCSFamily & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County
Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others.
All types of flu have similar symptoms that include:
•A 100°F or higherfever
•Coughing or sorethroat
•A runny or stuffynose
•Headaches and/orbody aches
•Nausea, vomiting,and/or diarrhea
In general, the flu is worse than the common cold and a test can determine whether you have the cold or flu.
Everyday steps that can help stop the spread of germs are washing hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub; avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth; get plenty of sleep and exercise, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy foods; and cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
Getting Vaccinated each season is the single best way to prevent the flu. The people who should get vaccinated are people who have certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, pregnant women, and people who are 65 years or older, and everyone 6 months of age or older should get the vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get vaccinated as soon as the flu season vaccine becomes available because it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.