Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bearing Witness: A Premed's Perspective

I cannot forget the words.

I sit on a Greyhound, home bound. Cars move pass me, or perhaps I move past them, faster and faster. Trees stand thick and green along the slightly glistening road, as if spring has come again. The gentle sunlight, the kind of warmth that creeps through the clouds after a rain storm, caresses my cheek. Though I grow absent-minded in this strange tranquility, sharp words echo through my head. “Medicine cannot afford to have a single narrative.”

Katherine Ellington, a neighbor, a friend, a mentor, said those words, first with a smile encouraging us to smile, as the AMSA Writer’s Conference: Bearing Witness. She repeated them later amidst tears, the kind of copious tears that come from strength, from joy, from fulfillment.

This idea drives all of my passions into one focal point. Before I had many stars, precious jewels collected from the undefined universe; but, now, now I have a sun that illuminates. At night, we feel fear, threatening shadows approach from angles beyond our control, but in the day, we have only hope.

My footsteps slowed; my black dress shoes began to drag. I walked in late at the start of the first day of the conference at AMSA’s beautiful headquarters, a glass castle in its own right in the grand D.C. Faces, creased by lines of intention, flashed each other taut smiles full of teeth and more. These were the apprentices of that trade so magical it had to be a kind of science; the medical students occupied the room like an immense mass. At once, I felt the gravity of their vast intellects and their ambition. Could I ever be like these titans? They stood indeed on the shoulders of the giant ones before them. In doing so, they touch the clouds. Slowly, they were reaching, soon to steal life and death out of the hands of the very gods.

How could I, not anybody of any skill or talent or strength, achieve the beauty, the purity, the risk, the uncertainty that they embodied? I am premed, perhaps not the usual ginner kind, but a science nerd with a fascination for simple things, life, matter, and good books. Slowly, and quietly, I entered and took a seat in the furthest corner, well within the setting sun. Perhaps, my fear would dull my voice and my inexperience restrain me?

Uncertainly smiling, like someone who’d caught only the end of a bad joke, tapping my feet and nodding my head, my spiky brown cranium, I lift my pen onto paper, borrowed from my small group partner, and began to write. Fifteen minutes after, this the first time, I had but twelve words. And, the words were shorts ones too scattered to belong together, not long words commanding respect in pronunciation alone. Why do I write, I wondered? Why? I would weave some verbs and nouns, with some manipulation, into a tapestry of pleasing sound. But, why do I write when I have no purpose?

On Thursday, I laughed and said hello, and in due time, fell to bed.

I awaken, still just premed (perhaps I am too young to drop prefixes yet). Opening a white folder, participant bios absorb my eyes. I see MD, MPH, PhD, JD, MA, MS written neatly, printed really on little pages- normal sized but too small to hold these descriptions, essentially incomparable- a taste of the future that draws near.

Downtown D.C., or perhaps it was uptown, looks hardly interesting at all. But, inside steel columns, stunted in their height, our minds grow on information. At Kaiser Family Foundation, Tom Linden and Theresa Schraeder, doctors of medicine, doctor indeed (Latin for “teacher”) our spirits. In fierce reality, ideas temper down to where they belong; and, we learn a truth, more so a reality. When we write about what we see, hear, touch, and feel, then and only then, we truly learn the meaning of the words which make up the very language of our lives.

In a kind of hazy dream, I arose and announced great physician-poets at the namesake of the place where Langston Hughes first gifted the world his talent. Dr. Campo waves normal words into poetry; a differential becomes a song. Basile tells us, I listen, that defining things is beautiful. In medicine, the tremor of the surgeon’s hand, the loneliness of one who always rolls the stone up the hill. Bow-tied Bronson conjures up ice, longing for the lost song of a violin- his father’s. Thus, indeed, I start to see. It is driven, propelled. As the heart of the body animal pumps the blood through all our vessels, so too the heart of man impels meaning through all our works.

At dinner, at dark, at night, I listen and speak to the people who I find. They, the med. students, my friends, share. There are infinite contentions; each had their own way. Be faithful to medicine if you love her, they said; otherwise, she will cast you aside like a spent whore. And, always, so what you want to in your mind; in the end, every fire, even the smallest, can defrost but cannot transmute lead to gold.

Good writing can turn into good writing, if initially there is truth, sincerity, credibility. In the morning, we sat at long tables and began to speak of respected words. Campo and Basile guided me through poetry and through prose and listened to us ramble, the outcome of our own hearts. All looked dearly into the text, jotting down notes like a typewriter on its last spool of ink. Why should it matter what we think and feel?

Why would anyone want to hear? My small group, premeds alone and only, pondered. We sought to understand. And, we knew. The entire point is to create the universal from the singular the unique. We want to make others feel as we do, as we can, as we care: out hopelessness is the same as that of patient whose cancerous body betrayed her, our happiness the same as that of the doctor delivering the last dose of cure, and our silence the same as that of every person who stumbles into an ER with no strength left.

I bring it all together, throughout the days. Writing empowers, endangers, engenders. In our words, we construct right, disparage wrong, debate foresight. We can tell our stories and that of others. We advocate, educate, heal, and dream. Physician, scientist, writer, teacher, human- we cannot separate in ourselves what is one. Do we cry without tears, without feelings, without a physical body? Do we laugh without opening our mouths, without a reason, without a joy? The purpose united all, more certain and grand than a theory of everything, more fundamental than invisible strings.

I cannot forget the words. “Medicine cannot afford to have a single narrative.”

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