Hula Dancer on a Square of Flesh: Scene from my Father's Medical Education
" . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul"
I often hear people mention that "a lot of doctors are poets." The list begins confidently with William Carlos Williams. It often ends there. My interest in Narrative Medicine moves from another list, the list of doctors who never wrote poems. At the top of this list is my father, an endocrinologist, a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. My father is a brilliant physician. His patients adore him. Though he is retired a decade now, his patients friend me on Facebook to ask me how he is feeling. We don't often ask how doctors are feeling. More often we accuse them of not feeling.
While my father is in assisted living in Sedona, we talk often about Narrative Medicine, me as the poet, he as the doctor. To summarily arc his career: he started in research and was happy there, teaching and discovering insulin's effect on adipose tissue under varying circumstances. Publishing ceased in the late 1970s, at which time he decided to move to the U.S. and enter private practice. He grew his success to multiple locations and real estate holdings and lost it over two decades, leaving the U.S. in 1992 and opening a single-examining-room office in Hamilton, Bermuda.
He wanted me to be a doctor. I knew I could not. We fought about it. In that argument I threw a Royal Doulton coffee cup at his head. I missed by a centimeter. Ten years later I reconsidered and told him I would leave my MFA in Poetry program to study Medicine. This time, he argued:
"Don't do it. Poetry is the superior means of finding the truth."
I didn't withdraw from the MFA program. Another fifteen years later, I am developing the field of Narrative Medicine, a practice whereby doctors are trained to develop empathy by engaging literature. My father is my greatest ally. For years, I felt that I needed to justify poetry to him. Now, though, we justify medicine to poetry.
Poetry and Medicine both heal, one the soul, the other the body. Our fields have always connected by an obscure parallax. How far apart we were can only be perceived by blinding oneself in one eye momentarily, but we are connected. Now I talk with him to learn how he learned to be a doctor then I follow up with an email asking him about the story he has told. He told me the other day the story about his first day at University of Toronto College of Physicians and Surgeons when one of the more advanced students stood in the hall stretching a "square shape" which as my father got closer he realized was a large piece of flesh cut from a dead person's stomach featuring a tattoo of a Hulu dancer, making it "dance." I wrote after:
I'm excited about our writing project. I'm going to ask you questions about your medical school experience to begin. I know the story of the tattooed flesh cut from the cadaver's belly. But I don't know how you felt as you walked down that hall. It was your first day. You see a more-senior student, or just a person down the hall . . .
I have always sold myself a little bit short. It started the night the coffee cup shattered against the plaster of the dining room wall. It started when I chose to be a poet instead of a doctor.
The conversation ends with no judgment or even answers. And will continue.