Rafael Campo's student physicians embrace poetry to hone art of healing

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Jeffrey Brown continues his series with U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey called "Where Poetry Lives," taking us to places where poetry and literature connect to everyday life.

In past stories, they visited a program for Alzheimer's patients in New York, and one in Detroit that encourages young students to write about themselves and their city.

Tonight, a different kind of connection, through the practice of medicine and healing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Outside Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital on a recent frigid morning, Natasha Trethewey met up with a former poetry student of hers from Emory University.

Do you remember her as a teacher?

SAMYUKTA MULLANGI, student at Harvard Medical School: Of course I do.


JEFFREY BROWN: And Natasha remembers Sam, Samyukta Mullangi, fondly as well.

Now you get to see her as a budding doctor-to-be.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. poet laureate: Yes, and she looks like the best, too. Seeing her talk about not only the work of being a physician, but also how poetry and language has a role in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sam is a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School, but poetry is still a big part of her life, now with a new mentor who believes poetry can benefit every doctor's education and work, Rafael Campo.

DR. RAFAEL CAMPO, Harvard Medical School: I agree, Sam, totally clear.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Doctor, professor and a highly regarded poet. His sixth volume, just published, is titled "Alternative Medicine."

RAFAEL CAMPO: "Someone is dying alone in the night. The hospital hums like a consciousness. I see their faces where others see blight. The doctors make their rounds like satellites, impossible to fathom distances. Someone is dying alone under lights."

Poetry is in every encounter with my patients. I think healing really in a very profound way is about poetry, And If we do anything when we're with our patients, we're really, I think, immersing ourselves in their stories, really hearing their voices in a profound way. And, certainly, that's what a poem, I think, does.

JEFFREY BROWN: Campo worries that something important has been lost in medicine and medical education today, a humanity that he finds in poetry.

To that end, he leads a weekly reading and writing workshop for medical students and residents. And on the night we joined, the group explored one of Campo's central themes, the occasional disconnect between medical facts and human truths.

RAFAEL CAMPO: Sometimes facts become all-consuming in our work as docs and we may risk losing sight of some of the truths of the experience of illness, particularly from the perspective of our patients.

WOMAN: It's interesting to think about how there's a roomful of surgeons who perceive one truth from this case and the family wanted everything done, everything done. And they were living with a different truth, right, which is that this is their family member. They want any day extra possible with this person.

JEFFREY BROWN: Campo thinks medical training focuses too much on distancing the doctor from his or her patients, and poems like one he brought for his students to read, Marilyn Hacker's "Cancer Winter," can help close that gap.

WOMAN: "The hovering swarm has nothing to forgive. Your voice petitions the indifferent night, I don't know how to die yet. Let me live."

RAFAEL CAMPO: There's confrontation really with mortality. How does the poem make that happen?

WOMAN: We have this universal experience with mortality, and the speaker sort of invites us to grapple with it.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The way she shows us the landscape transformed through the lens of a diagnosis. To know this now means you see ruin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Third-year resident Andrea Schwartz (ph) was one of the workshop regulars who read her own poetry.

WOMAN: "The whiteness of her mother's knuckles while we told her we couldn't promise a cure. After the call, I imagined the translator hanging up his receiver into the silence of his office, unable to break beyond his role to offer condolence or hope."

JEFFREY BROWN: The next day, Natasha and her former student compared notes.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: One of the things we also talk about is the way that poetry connects us to the experience of other human beings. And we saw — I thought I saw that in wonderful detail in some of the poems that we read in the workshop last night.

SAMYUKTA MULLANGI: I was thinking about this yesterday as well, and it's that, outside of writing itself, I think there's no other profession other than medicine that produces as many writers as it does.

And I think because there's just so much power, I think, in physicians and patients interacting when patients are at their most vulnerable and at their most human.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha and I, of course, are typically in that patient role when we meet doctors, and this was a rare look behind the medical curtain.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: When I heard that Dr. Campo talking yesterday about taking histories from patients and what's necessary to hear, I thought about language and the way that we use language in poetry and to try to get to something precise, to try to find a way to describe what is happening inside the body through the kind of precise language.

It's not just the scale of pain that they keep talking about, but also using metaphor to be as precise as possible about what we are feeling as patients. If I could describe the pain metaphorically like, you know, being hit by a truck or having a knife go into my abdomen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. You're hearing them talk about different ways of using language. That's like poetry.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That's what poets do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not everyone's convinced that's what doctors should do, though.

I saw in an essay you wrote where you said it was hard for you to admit to other doctors that you were a poet.

RAFAEL CAMPO: That's right. Yes, I sort of had to come out as a poet.


RAFAEL CAMPO: It was difficult.

I was afraid of how people might judge me, actually, and how my colleagues might perceive me. Another ethos in the medical profession, as many people know, is the sense that medicine is all-consuming and that we must always put the clinical emergency first.


JEFFREY BROWN: You are not going to write a sonnet at that moment.

RAFAEL CAMPO: I'm not writing a sonnet at that moment.

But, you know, that — often, that kind of an intervention or that kind of an interaction results, if it's happening in the hospital, very regrettably, sadly, results in a bad outcome. The family is sitting by the bedside. The patient hasn't survived the arrhythmia. Don't we still have a role as healers there?

"Obesity writ large no more, Alzheimer's forgotten. We could live carefree again."

JEFFREY BROWN: In a poem titled "Health," Campo writes of the desire to live forever in a world made painless by our incurable joy.

He says he will continue mentoring students, helping patients and writing poems, his own brand of alternative medicine.

Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.