Humanism in Medicine: Teaching Poetry to Residents

I serve as the clinical medical librarian for the Internal Medicine department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. This means I attend the residents’ morning reports every Thursday and Friday at 8 a.m. as they discuss patient cases to help them learn how to diagnose and treat the patients they serve. When a question comes up which can be answered by an article, I look up the answer in the medical literature and the chief residents share the results with the others via Sakai. I also train the residents in searching techniques in various databases such as PubMed, Scopus, or VisualDx.

Dr. Mirela Feurdean, internal medicine residency program director at New Jersey Medical School, approached me in September 2017 about doing something a bit different with the residents. “I know you’re a poet,” she said to me. “Would you be interested in teaching a poetry workshop to the residents?” In my personal life, I’m a published poet who teaches a weekly workshop in Jersey City, and I just published my first chapbook this year. So of course, I said yes.

The first workshop was held at noon on September 22, alongside free pizza for the residents. The residents were a bit shy, but 11 (out of 20 or so) ended up participating. I shared handouts with them that included a poem written by an award-winning internal medicine doctor, Rafael Campo, as well as a patient. I also shared a couple articles about how to use metaphors effectively when explaining science to patients. For example, research has shown that breast cancer patients who use battle or war metaphors to describe their experience with cancer have a higher incidence of depression than those who use positive words like “challenge” or “journey.” The words we use matter. The residents wrote poems employing medical metaphors, and some even submitted their finished poems to Ars Literarium, the literary journal of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and other RBHS Schools.

The chief residents asked me to return the following month, and on October 20, we focused on short poems, learning a bit about the form haiku. This time, virtually all 20 or so residents participated. Even if they weren’t writing themselves, they snapped their fingers or clapped their hands to celebrate each other’s work as they started to share their writing. Dr. Ahmad Al Turk was inspired to write a clever quatrain, Odgen Nash-style.

NSAIDs work for all
Conditions that end with –itis,
Summer, spring, or fall,
But don’t get fooled with gastritis!

By Ahmad Al Turk, MD

The medical “joke” of the poem, for those without the medical background, is that NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen) can irritate the stomach and cause gastritis.

However, not all the poems were strictly linked to medicine, and some of the doctors wrote about other aspects of their lives. One resident was inspired to share a rap he had previously written, and he nervously approached the front of the conference room. As he closed his rap, which shared a story about a patient who survived a dire medical situation, he encouraged his fellow doctors not to “go numb” as they continue their work as physicians. His fellow doctors cheered and clapped, and there were tears in the eyes of many.

I look forward to continuing these workshops to my residents, as I hope to help them de-stress during a hectic time of their lives.


Sarah Jewell