Creative Writing in Medical School

It is Tuesday at 1:30 PM and the eight of us, two faculty leaders and six students, are sitting around a rectangular table on the third floor of the medical school. Dr. Mathews turns to Piper.

“How did it feel to share that piece?”

Technically, it is an elective creative writing class, but to my medical school classmates I jokingly refer to it as “group therapy.” We meet once a month and bring with us poems, essays, thoughts and stories about our personal lives and experiences in medical school. We have prescribed prompts, things like, “How have you changed since you started medical school?” and “How has medical school affected your relationships?” but we are imaginative and our leaders are forgiving enough that we can make anything fit. Once when I was particularly uninspired, I brought a list. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed with school work, we come empty-handed, just to listen. And that still feels good, to be trusted with everyone else’s stories.

Today we are talking about the bag metaphor again. Clayton wrote about it back in November. It is this idea that as you work with patients in their difficult moments you accumulate a “bag” full of emotions. The question is this: what do you do with the bag? How do you empty it? And what happens if you don’t?

In reality, we are too inexperienced to have a concrete understanding of what the weight of this bag really feels like. We are first-year medical students who have struggled under a stack of textbooks and held the hands of our cadavers in anatomy lab. We are rapidly accumulating a list of all the things that can fail in the human body and by extension, all the ways a human can die. But as far as patients go, we remain relatively naïve in our year-one academic bubble constructed of power-point slides, x-rays, and exams.

We may not know burnout, but all these things do accumulate; as the months go by we realize that it no longer feels like someone else’s illness.

So when we enter that classroom on the third floor, we bring with us our small bags in the form of backlit Word documents, and over the course of the next hour and a half we read. We learn to listen and what it feels like to be listened to. We learn to acknowledge and empathize. We learn to talk about the things that bother us. We learn to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and imperfect. At 3:00 PM, we leave with the Word documents completely intact but their contents oddly lighter.

I’m not sure if there is some magic that happens when we share stories or if the concept is so simple that there is nothing magical about it at all. Our professors remind us, “80% of correct diagnoses require only a detailed history.” Consequently, within medicine there is constructed an innate reverence for the importance of a patient’s story. And so as we learn to listen to patients’ stories in our clinical skills class, we are also learning to listen to and care for each other in creative writing.

It is my turn to share. I am always last because I am too nervous to volunteer to go earlier. Even after a year of meeting like this, reading aloud still makes my voice sound funny in my ears. But everyone is waiting, so I turn my eyes to my computer screen and inhale.

It is a poem I wrote last night at 2:00 AM. I don’t really like poetry, but it happened to be what came out of me in that sleepless moment. I hear myself trip over the last line and cringe.

Dr. Mathews turns toward me. “How did it feel to share that?”

I think for a moment. “Good. I mean the poem is not great. But yeah . . .Yeah, that felt good.”

Hillary Mullan

Hillary Mullan is a third-year medical student at the University of Massachusetts. She is interested in the intersection of art and medicine. She believes that the creative process can be healing and has found that writing has helped her to process the complexities, challenges and joys of medical school. Currently, she is working on a project to increase access to art within hospitals. Previous work has been published in Pulse, Intima, Thirdspace, and In-training.

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