By Prerana Chatty
William Carlos Williams once said, “When asked, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.”
Much like William Carlos Williams, I see my world in poems.
My study of poetry began in college. As I decided I wanted to pursue medicine, I used poetry as my way of processing my clinical experiences – medicine is unique from other sciences because human interaction is at its core. Poetry for me, was a way of bridging the science and the humanity that led me medicine in the first place.
Even before I entered medical school, I recognized my time in the anatomy lab as a sacred hallmark of my training. In my final poetry portfolio of college, I wrote a poem in the form of a letter to myself that ended with the lines “there are bodies waiting for you to open them/so open your hands.”
As we began anatomy, I prepared to write with the vast amounts of free time I knew I would have (that’s a joke) – I braced myself for life-altering experiences and for self-reflection. I was not disappointed. The anatomy lab was a world of poems. I found poetry in nearly every moment I experienced.
My first moment holding a human heart inspired the line “the heart was meant to be handled.” The moment where I found a pancreatic tumor in my donor, just a few weeks after my grandfather was officially declared a pancreatic cancer survivor, birthed the lines “I am holding in my hands a pain so deep/it creates/what it takes.” And above all, there was a moment where I was looking at a donor with my classmates, and we forget her skin tone – the similarity that we all share was palpable and that inspired the line “when they ask me who I am, I know only that skin is a mask.”
Poetry, for me, is a paradoxical vehicle that conveys in words what words themselves are really incapable of describing. The anatomy lab, and the gratitude I have towards all of you and your family members, is indescribable. Poetry has been my way of understanding life, death, bodies and their relation to one another.
I’d like to share one of these poems with you. This poem is about the first donor I worked with – whom I called George. I think many of classmates would agree that our first donors were particularly special to us, because they began the anatomy lab experience with us. I certainly felt this way about George. I really felt that we were partners in this experience.
I thought a lot about what George was like – what his job was, who he loved, or even what his favorite color was. George had a neurological impairment when he passed away, so I thought a lot about whether or not he remembered or had awareness of the fact that he had donated his body in the moments leading up to his death. I wished I could thank him.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that George wanted me to learn from his body, so the first day of anatomy lab, I held his elbow before leaving, the way I might hold my grandfather’s when helping him down the stairs. This is partly just because I’m a starving artist wanting to create a poetic moment, but more so because I wanted to maintain a human connection in spite of how abnormal I knew things were about to become. I made a habit of doing this when I left the lab. It made our relationship more real.
The poem I’m about to share with you is directly about my experience with George, but my hope is that it also speaks more generally to the student-donor relationship, and the significant impact your friends and family had on all of us. I hope you know that along with them, you all helped create the next generation of physicians. We could not be more grateful.
In this new life,
there is no forgetting –
only a girl in green scrubs
with her hands
– then an incision.
her eyes unraveled you.
She searched for you in the numbness,
when she could not find you,
she grasped your elbow.
You ran through her
like a current.
She remembers the “M” she found
in your axilla
like a resonating chord.
Her chest resonated (she breathed in)
as she opened your atria
with her fingers (she breathed out)
– she looked for absence,
she learned your presence.
Her fingers followed your sulcal grooves.
They memorized they remembered,
she grasped your elbow.
You pierced her like static,
She sat by you,
praying with her palms on the remnants
of your palms.
She learned you like a language.
The deeper she cut,
the deeper she loved you..
The deeper she cut,
she remembered the green
in your eyes.
When she left you,
the girl in the green scrubs
grasped your elbow
(she breathed in)
(she breathed out).