April 27, 2005
Presented by Richard M. Berlin, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
University of Massachusetts Medical School
Medical student writers who were fearless enough to submit your poems, stories, and essays: you were fantastic. Each one brought tears to my eyes for their honesty, immediacy and compassion. It was a privilege to read your work and imagine you as colleagues. Thank you to my fellow judges, Emily Ferrara and Dave Hatem, who are doing such extraordinary work in their creative writing class for medical students and for their broader efforts in teaching and developing the medical humanities. And congratulations to Emily for her recent success with own her poetry. Finally, thank you to Michele Pugnaire and Mai-Lan Rogoff who has been instrumental in setting up the award and administering the contest. Since this is the first ceremony for an award I have funded for at least ten years, I want to tell you something about why I wanted to establish a medical student creative writing award dedicated to the memory of my father.
When my father turned 37 in 1963, he was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Over the next few years, the autoimmune process evolved to include inflammatory bowel disease with a combination of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. I was thirteen the year he took sick, and what happened over the next seventeen years, before his death from colon cancer at age 56, had a major impact on shaping my life and career.
My father served in the Army-Air Corps at a weather station in Greenland during World War II. When he returned home, he began law school, but after the isolation of years in the Arctic, he no longer felt motivated to sit and study. Somehow he managed to scrape together enough money to buy a sweatband factory in Greenwich Village in New York City. (A sweat band is the leather strip inside a fine man’s hat.) After he got sick, he often joked that it was the smell of leather that kept him alive.
My father had the best doctors in the world: a renowned hematologist in Boston (back before the specialty included oncology); and both the hematology fellow and internal medicine resident who took care of him in Boston continued to be his physicians when they finished their training and set up practices where we lived in northern New Jersey. As connected as my father felt with his doctors over many years, he often said, “They know my numbers, but they don’t know me.” When he began to complain of symptoms which suggested colon cancer, his doctors didn’t respond for over a year. For whatever reasons, including the complexity of his medical condition, they couldn’t hear him. And although I know they did their best, I believe that if they had listened a bit more closely, or listened in a different way, my father might have suffered less and lived a few years longer.
For many years, I was unaware of all the ways my father’s illness affected my choice of career, but in retrospect, it is obvious to me that a huge portion of my life as a doctor has been oriented toward finding ways to bring doctors closer to their patients, first in my work as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist, and more recently as a poet.
Which brings me to the classic New York riddle: What is the difference between a garment worker and a poet?
I didn’t write my first poem until my mid-forties, and for the first year of writing, every poem ended up being about my father. When my first collection of poems was completed, I dedicated the book to him. For those of you who haven’t tried publishing a book of poetry, it is not a process for the faint-hearted: How JFK Killed My Father was rejected more than two hundred times over a four year period. (Poetry book publication contests typically receive 500 to over 1000 submissions and only one gets published). During all the rejections, I often thought about the way my father coped with much greater difficulties in his own life, persevering through his illness, rarely missing a day of work, maintaining his sense of hope, and holding on to his sense of humor. When my book won the Pearl Poetry Prize, which included publication and a $1000 cash award, I knew my father would have loved the idea of my using the money to encourage the creative writing efforts of medical students. And with all the help of Emily, Dave, and Mai-Lan, and all the students who submitted a story, essay or poems to the contest, we arrive at the ceremony today.
I believe creative writing – and all the arts – give medical students a special opportunity to reflect on their experiences, to maintain their humanity, to heighten their empathy for the suffering of the people we care for, and to bring doctors closer to their patients. The great poet Pablo Neruda described poetry with words I would use to describe the practice of medicine. He said ”poetry” (and I would say “medicine”) “includes the decrees of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the lust for justice, sexual desire, the sound of the ocean, nothing deliberately excluded, nothing deliberately accepted, entrance into the depth of things in a headlong act of love…”
The students who submitted their work to this contest were clearly involved in “a headlong act of love,” and I am thrilled we will now have the opportunity to hear them read their work today