risk A verse


A few months ago, I read from Blue Peninsula at Mayo Clinic and then at the College of William and Mary. It was as if the book, its poetry, and I were in the middle, between two half-conversations exciting to imagine whole: on one side, physicians and medical professionals, and on the other, patients and families. The poems were a vortex intensifying and focusing vital discussions and clearing the space to allow them to happen.In February 2007, I spoke to neurology residents and fellows at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, on “A Coming to Terms: Care and Communication without Diagnosis.” We left “clinical time” to occupy briefly “poetic time”. Poems from Carl Phillips and William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson were read aloud and questions and suggestions came up about empowering physicians and patients in a situation of unknowing.In March, a group of well-informed retirees, members of the Christopher Wren Town and Gown Association at the College of William and Mary, came to hear me read from Blue Peninsula, many of them having just read Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think. They were eager to consider how to make a familiar and often frustrating part of their lives more productive.Physicians and patients and scientists spoke about fears and failures and hopes and compromises; about the humility and frustration, and sometimes the liberation, of not knowing; about the desires and difficulties of caring; about the impediments to best intentions and world-class talents; and about the rarity of such opportunities to consider or speak about these things.A doctor at Mayo, towards the end of the discussion, asked me what the single most important thing in making my son’s likely outcome of “no known diagnosis” as palatable as possible. That it came from a caring human being known to me, I said, not from an email or a text message or a piece of a paper but from a human being I’d come to know, sitting across from me with his education and expertise and saying you and I share in this bafflement now.People in both audiences commented on the power of “poetic time” in allowing vital reflection, listening and communication to happen. In health care contexts where so much divides, poetry can connect. It is exciting to watch this take place and to construct opportunities for this to continue.