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Finding your Path


Before you skip over this post because of the previous sentence, I want you to think about something that fascinated you far more than you thought it would. That’s what I think poetry is for most people: that interesting thing that they never knew existed. I truly, maybe a little naively, believe that those who don’t like poetry just haven’t been exposed to the poems that they would like. And there’s a lot of poetry out there, far more than what the volumes on that one shelf at your nearest major book retailer might suggest. (I had originally titled this post “The poetry section at major bookstores makes me really sad,” but then I realized that THAT was one way to make sure no one reads this post!)

I recently finished Step 2. I’m officially an M4 now. Like the characters in the title short story I recently read from Anthony Doerr’s amazing 2002 collection The Shell Collector, who are bitten and rendered briefly comatose by a venomous sea snail, I’m in shock. I took Step 2 on Monday, and for the past three days, all I’ve done is read (I’m on my vacation month). They say that there are two types of people: those who read to remember, and those who read to forget. What about those who read to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives? In which camp do the nuances of that desire fall?

In truth, I know what my next four years will look like. I am ecstatic to have found, through my M3 year, the medical field that I will go into. I also know that I will be writing poetry. And here is where a less stubborn version of myself might throw up her hands and say, “This- this is not happening” — “This” meaning a career path that lets me combine my love of medicine and poetry into something that (can I say this without sounding completely delusional) could be helpful to both fields. I can’t say that it’s been easy so far– being a medical student and a writer. “I’m a poet” is not something that I volunteer on the wards, mostly because that’s like randomly telling people that you love kayaking or have a fondness for turtles in the middle of a conversation about your career ambitions. Because, despite the successful integration of creative pursuits and medical careers by physician-writers such as Atul Gawande, Amit Majudar, C. Dale Young, Rafael Campo, and so many, many more, creative writing is still seen as being separate from medicine, as evidenced by the furrowed brows and blank stares I’ve received on clerkships in response to the phrase “I write poetry” (sometimes also to the phrase, “I like to write,” at which point I’m like, This…is going to be a long two weeks).  When I’m feeling adventurous, I will tell attendings or residents that I write poetry, but for the most part, I don’t bring it up unless asked about hobbies or interests outside of medicine (and instead use my energy to plan events that integrate medicine and the arts, like this one with the poet and internist Rafael Campo back in March: Small but gradual change!

What this gap between medicine and the arts boils down to, for me, is an awareness gap. Just as you might hypothetically think that all the poetry in the world is of one homogeneous note if you only consider the poems in your high school literature textbook (was going to write, “the poetry section at the major book store,” but then realized that probably NO ONE besides writers look at, and cry over, that section), so might physicians, when it comes to possibilities within a medical career.  What does this mean for me, an M4?  As I go through this year, I hope to continue to work with the Medicine and the Arts Program to plan events that bring physicians and medical students together with writers. I’ll work on my IMPACT project, a collection of poems about dementia (more about that in a later post). I’ll mentor some of my peers within the Medical Humanities Path of Excellence, for which I’m planning a lesson that involves reflection and writing.  I’ll continue to learn, and think, and write.  It’s unfamiliar territory for most, but that’s what makes it exciting–at least, definitely, to me!


Ting Gou is an M4.  Her first collection of poems, The Other House, is forthcoming in the Delphi Poetry Series from Blue Lyra Press this November.  Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and can be found in various literary and medical journals.

Poetry and Medicine in the New Year

Yesterday, I fell asleep to the sound of exploding fireworks from neighbors’ lawns.  It felt unbelievably good to be back home in Georgia with my family.  One of the neighbors placed firecrackers in a ring on their driveway, lit them one by one.  As the fireworks went off, the children, each holding a sparkler, lined up in front of the garage.  I could only imagine what the picture taken of that night would look like for them — an array of multicolored sparks lighting up their faces, the rest of their bodies invisible.  Little fires hissed in the dark.

Confession: I’ve been afraid of loud noises for forever.  When I was three, I carried a large balloon up the staircase in my grandma’s apartment.  The balloon caught on some metal and exploded.  I think that’s when the fear started.  Isn’t it strange how we still remember certain things from our childhood?  Being with family means that I have been thinking more about memory recently.  You can read about what I have to say about memory in my interview with the literary magazine r.kv.r.y.(pronounced recovery)

I’ve also been thinking more about memory because I just finished my neurology rotation, during which I took care of patients with dementia.  When we create our identities from the memories of ourselves, what happens when we can no longer remember?  On some level, I guess I’ve been exploring this question ever since I started writing poetry in high school.  The idea that you have to create an identity when one isn’t available to you is what drew me to poetry in the first place.  During my M2 year, I first started approaching this question from the perspective of a healthcare provider.  I took an M2 elective that gave students the opportunity to talk to a patient with dementia.  The patient that I talked to happened to be a painter, and she told me about how her art has changed throughout the progression of her dementia.  Not worse, just different.  Her story–the idea of taking something that is unraveling your identity and transforming it into new material for your art–led me to write a poem that explored the relationship between her painting and Penelope’s weaving and unweaving.  How the act of unraveling was an act of hope for Penelope, how losing her identity in one way helped my patient find another identity.  You can read my poem in the latest issue of JAMA

To remember something is to explore the past, because memories are imperfect.  But I do believe that the way in which our memories are imperfect is useful, as I mention in r.kv.r.y.  I can’t say if my neighbors will remember the fear of the fireworks more than the excitement (though I doubt even the children carry a greater phobia of balloons and loud noises than I do), but perhaps what they do remember the best will be a reflection of what was really important about that memory to begin with.  For me, I will remember how I watched the fireworks despite being terrified of the noise.  Everywhere, things were exploding.  And it was beautiful.