on July 21st, 2014 No Comments
The standing room only crowd at the Stanford Humanities Center had come to hear physicians read their own writing about the most difficult of topics: “I Am Afraid I Have Bad News: Death and Dying in Medicine.” The enthusiastic response to the topic demonstrated the interest in and need for such a forum. “This is a topic we just don’t talk about enough, in medicine and in society,” said Ward Trueblood, MD, a member of Stanford’s Pegasus Physician Writer’s group who curated the event.
Trueblood’s own experiences as a trauma surgeon, particularly during the Vietnam War, affected him deeply. “When I went to medical school, they didn’t teach you about death and dying,” he explains. Trueblood has found writing to be a powerful way to process his experiences. His memoir, Blood of the Common Sky: A Young Surgeon in Vietnam, will be published this year, and his book of poetry To Bind Up Their Wounds is available on Amazon. Trueblood appreciated being able to give fellow physicians an opportunity to share their experiences with death and dying through personal poetry and essays.
Gregg Chesney, MD, a critical care fellow, read two poems, including “Lost in Translation”:
In trying to explain how “she hit the floor with a thud”
now means “she never woke up
and never will,” something was lost.
Yes, that is her heart tracing its beat across the monitor, but that swollen tangle
of blood, wrapped and knotted at the base of her brain
has pressed the leafless stalk of her medulla and left her
brain dead. There is no one-more-test, no
chance-for-recovery, but at 2am, rendered in secondhand Mandarin,
that point might be missed, or left to dangle precariously,
soured and unplucked,
as he works out how to raise a 3 year-old on his own.
As Chesney finished the poem, his six-month old son cooed in his mother’s arms. The irony of the moment was not lost on the audience, as they contemplated the fate of the young father in Chesney’s poem.
Bruce Feldstein, MD, Stanford’s hospital chaplain, read “At My Father’s Bedside,” in which he shared what he had learned from his patients with his dying father:
The moment itself is peaceful, I’m told. No fear. Simply letting go. Smooth, like a hair being pulled from milk… You know, we human beings have been dying for a long time. Your body has a natural wisdom built right in for shutting itself down. The body knows just what to do. And there are medicines along the way to keep you comfortable.
During the Q&A session, an audience member asked Feldstein if there was anything he wished patients knew about their physicians. “Yes, how much doctors care,” Feldstein responded. “And that this effects them too. How difficult it can be to be the medical professional in that instance, giving news that no family members want to hear about their loved one.”