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OPINION

The doctor poets of COVID

Medicine and poetry have never been strangers.

The unique conditions of the pandemic prompted some practitioners to start writing poetry.Peter Werner/Adobe

A few weeks ago, I noticed a poem by Dr. John Okrent in Ploughshares magazine. In “May 5, 2020,” Okrent, who works in a clinic in Tacoma, Wash., was lamenting the sudden loss of a friendly maintenance man with whom he exchanged perfunctory greetings each day.

. . . He wasn’t even fifty,

Had four grandchildren, fixed what was broken, cleaned

For us, caught the virus, and died on his couch

Last weekend.

Okrent said in an interview that he started writing poems about the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020: “It felt like I needed some outlet, because my days had become so freighted and stressful. I was worried about my patients and my family and my own health in a way that I had never before. I had never written poems that reference my work as a physician, and it felt good to merge those two parts of myself.”

Medicine and poetry have never been strangers. John Keats trained as a doctor; Walt Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War; and physician William Carlos Williams won the first National Book Award for Poetry, in 1950, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 1963. The New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on health care, underwrites the distribution of the anthology “On Doctoring,” co-edited by the physician-poet John Stone, to every first-year medical student in the country.

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The unique conditions of the pandemic — doctors laundering their clothes before embracing their families; the initially inexplicable surge of sudden, mysterious deaths — prompted some practitioners to start writing poetry.

Dr. Wendy Stead, an infectious disease specialist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, hadn’t written a poem since high school. In 2020, she submitted “An Essential Worker’s List of Pandemic Chores for the Kids” to JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, which frequently publishes poetry.

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The poem is an affectionate and poignant to-do list addressed to her teenagers marooned at home while she left before they woke to work at the hospital. It includes sardonic instructions on how to bag the trash, feed the dog, and

Don’t touch or hug anyone.

Eventually forget I said this.

If everything works out, it won’t be true any more.

But still wash your hands.

At work I’m called essential. It’s a gift to be essential to you.

“The feedback I got on that was unbelievable,” Stead told me. “I had recently joined Twitter, and suddenly I was getting tweets from everywhere. I think it really resonated for parents and doctors who were feeling a lot of sadness and guilt spending time away from their families. I heard from people all over the world — it took my breath away.”

Dr. Chris Schifeling, a primary care physician in Denver focusing on geriatric and palliative care, found himself sharing a minuscule apartment with his suddenly working-from-home wife, and turned the experience into a parody of a love poem, “Quarantine.”

Even though our 500 ft² apt is a petri dish

Even though the bathroom pretends to be an office

Even though the TP clock is ticking

Even though even a good song may grow old

Even though I have eaten all the almond butter …

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Even with this

Still will I wish:

Won’t you be mine,

My quarantine.

“I always assumed that I’d be so busy with medicine that I wouldn’t have time to write,” Schifeling said in an interview. “I thought it would go away, but it’s always been there for me.” The creator of the “Auscultation” podcast, Schifeling admires poets Ted Kooser, Paul Hostovsky, and Dr. Rafael Campo, a Harvard Medical School professor.

Once Okrent started writing pandemic-related sonnets, he found it hard to stop. “I found myself facing an unbreakable chain of days,” he said. “I thought I would keep writing sonnets until the pandemic ended, and then it became clear that it wasn’t ending.”

Over seven months, Okrent wrote seven “crowns” (“It was kind of corny — ‘corona’ means ‘crown’ in Latin”) of seven sonnets each. In a sonnet “crown,” each new poem starts with the last line of the preceding poem. The resulting collection of 49 poems, “This Costly Season,” will be published by Boston’s Arrowsmith Press later in the spring.

Is it safe to stop writing poetry now? “That awful isolation is going away and that feels really good,” Okrent said. “I don’t need the practice of writing those sonnets as a way to deal with the fear. It’s less frightening now that we have the vaccinations, the treatments, more knowledge of COVID. Those first seven months were excruciating.”


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.