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Q & A

This doctor’s an award-winning poet

Dr. Rafael Campo is both an internist and a poet. At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he directs the Office of Multicultural Affairs; at Lesley University, he’s on the faculty of the Masters in Fine Arts program. The Harvard Medical School associate professor recently won the international Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, and his sixth book of poetry, “Alternative Medicine,” is due out in the fall.

Q. What connection do you see between the two sides of your life, poetry and medicine?

A. To my mind the two are inextricably interrelated. When we take care of patients we are immersed in stories, in language, in metaphor. Every encounter is a form of poetry, because I think in poetry, we experience immersion in another person’s voice, in another person’s story.

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Q. You also feel it’s important to teach other doctors about poetry?

A. If we don’t attend to the humane in our patients’ experiences of illness, we risk becoming mere technicians. There are many instances where there isn’t going to be another round of chemotherapy, or another procedure to do, and yet our patients still come to us for care. When we reach the limits of technology, especially, I think is when poetry and storytelling and just simply that empathetic connection is still very powerfully therapeutic.

Q. And patients want this kind of humanistic care?

A. There are so many patients who come to us really starved for that human interaction. More and more patients are seeking alternative care providers because they get more of that human interaction when they see someone for massage therapy or for acupuncture. That tells me that we really need to do better in this realm.

Q. In today’s medical system, do doctors really have time to talk to their patients about poetry and art?

A. I find it’s made me not only — I hope — a more attentive and caring doctor, but also much more efficient. I can get to the heart of the matter much more quickly because that bond is there, that trust is there. That close listening is possible when we’ve shared in this human side of this experience of illness.

Q. Many of today’s doctors don’t form that connection with patients?

A. There are studies that show that docs routinely interrupt patients within a few minutes, before the patient has a chance to say what’s troubling him/her. It’s critically important that we hear what our patients tell us. They’re the experts on what’s happening in their bodies.

Q. Is such empathy teachable?

A. I think it’s difficult to teach empathy, but I do think it’s very possible for us to model empathy much more effectively than we do these days. I think we sometimes send the signal that what’s really important is: What’s the differential diagnosis, what’s the potassium level, how many lymph nodes were positive — all the biomedical data. Of course that is important, but in getting caught up in that, we end up modeling a kind of distancing and disconnection with patients that then is mimicked by our learners.

Q. How does the growing diversity of the American population affect doctors and health care?

A. In my experience of caring for Latino patients, the ways they talk about their symptoms is often described very metaphorically with all this beautiful musical language. For some docs, that can be another source of frustration. “Oh gosh, can’t you just get to the point? What do you mean that the pain feels like a cold wind blowing? How do I make sense of that?” It turns out that if you have an understanding of metaphor, of how language works in a broad sense, because of engagement with literature or with poetry, suddenly those descriptions start to make a lot more sense and we can listen much more effectively.

Q. What do you see as the role, the responsibility of the patient in this doctor-patient relationship?

A. Often in medicine, we take what the patient tells us — whatever we let them actually say — and we immediately reinterpret it and translate it into our medical-eze, and suddenly the patient is excluded from their own experience of the disease. [Writing poetry or making art is] a way of reestablishing a kind of control over a body that seems to be betraying them, or a way to resist the appropriation of their story. By owning it, there’s the possibility of changing it and of making the end of the story perhaps a better one.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.
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