The Lancet Student

Finding Art in Medicine by Priya Shankar

This blog was submitted by priyaishankar on 27th December 2012.
Tagged with Creative Writing, Poetry, Medicine

There are days when crisp snow falls onto grey Boston streets, when I tune out the sound of the birds chirping, the rise and fall of a watchful sun, and the cacophonous beat of the taxi cabs outside my window. My mind remains immersed in the books and facts in front of me, and I find the rest of the world, including the arts and literature that I had loved for so many years, becoming a distant memory.

I began medical school in a serpentine fashion. For my whole life, I had studied writing, arts, and the humanities – waving aside the sciences as, perhaps, too difficult, too boring, or lacking creativity. I would sit in my high school physics courses (that I hardly passed!) reading Nehru’s autobiography or South Asian fiction beneath my desk. In college, I studied political science and began to focus on maternal and infant health policy in India, spending each of my summers and winter breaks in India hoping to learn more. At the time, I had thought that the world of law and political writing would become my home, but upon spending a longer time in India travelling through many villages, I began to realize how short-sighted I had been, and that the sciences would give me the tools to treat patients and to act.

In the following year, I pushed myself to learn the basic sciences, essentially opening myself up to a foreign language. I learned about cells, viruses, Bernoulli’s principle, recombinant DNA, and action potentials. I was warned again and again that it would be a tremendous transition and departure moving away from the arts to the sciences. “There is no beauty or romance in science,” a friend once told me, implying that there were no traces of Tagore’s tales or Rumi’s poetry, the magic and spontaneity of the jazz quartets, or the swaying of the trumpeteers. I was told that the great writers would run away from the utter staleness of medicine. But while it is true that there have been many moments of dullness in the pursuit of medicine, I have also found it creating it's own unique kind of poetry; from silently interlacing itself in a young couple’s romance, an old man’s story, or a patient’s description of her life experiences.

Each day as I sit in a coffee shop to learn, I watch as the same three homeless individuals arrive and place their long trench coats on the hanger near their seat. They keep their small suitcases, which safeguard most of their possessions, tethered to security wires. In our classes, we learn that these individuals are our patients; patients who have aged fiercely in the Boston winters, who suffer from chronic ailments, and who subsist on very little food and shelter each day. I looked up as one of the men began to cough fiercely; the sickness in his voice travelling to the other side of the coffee shop. He pulled out a book from within his suitcase and began to read it. It was Kafka's 'Metamorphosis.' As he flipped through, page by page, I was reminded that our patients were far more complicated than any textbook could teach us; their lives were filled with unique interests and passions, and that the struggle and hardship tossed to them by life was just one part of a much longer story.

As I walked through dull city streets one afternoon, I found medicine weaving through yet another story – lingering in a young couple’s romance. The couple sat on the front of their porch deep in the midst of a task. The man placed thin needles into his partner’s fingertips. She winced with each pin prick as small droplets of blood slid towards her palm. He held her close, rubbing her back and shoulders, and kissing the tips of her fingers after every needle had been inserted. When my eyes finally met theirs, we exchanged smiles. “Is she okay?” I asked. “Yes,” the man replied, looking back at his partner adoringly. “This is a traditional Korean remedy for stomach illness. She has a severe illness and we hope this will help her.”

And finally, I found art and medicine entwined in a patient’s candid words. An old woman described her experiences with pain and the sadness that accompanied it. As she spoke, I found that her words of despair and hope resembled the lines of the great poets. “It's as though a dark cloud hangs over me each day,” she said. “I sometimes want to grab up to reach up to something and I cannot. Right now I might look normal to you, but inside I feel a tension in my jaws and in the rest of my body. The feeling is indescribable and incredibly isolating.” When I asked her about what brought her out of it, or if there was anything that gave her happiness in life, her eyes finally lit up like little fireflies in a dark room.

"My children," she replied. "My children help me up. There was a day when I was lost in my thoughts, and my little one came to my lap, looked at me, and asked me to play with her. She doesn't know it, but she helped me come back to reality."

It became clear to me, then, that the path I had chosen was, in fact, not as far from the one I had known for most of my life; that in every patient, in a small coffee shop, and around each and every street corner, I could find medicine and art combining. To anyone brave enough to make a career switch and to jump head first into the world of sciences, I hope you’ll find as much beauty, art, and magic in medicine as I have slowly found myself discovering