The poetry of medicine

Updated: Apr 05, 2020, 08:21 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

When men of science say, words can heal wounds, you've got to listen. Three young doctors, who are also writers, draw inspiration from tragedy

Dr Siddharth Warrier started the Lucknow chapter of The Poetry Club in 2016, when he was pursuing a doctorate in medicine
Dr Siddharth Warrier started the Lucknow chapter of The Poetry Club in 2016, when he was pursuing a doctorate in medicine

As the monitor by a 22-year-old female patient's bed wailed, Dr Aheed Khan was prompted to rush outside the labour room. Severely anaemic, she had lost a lot of blood. "Her family of about 30 was waiting outside, eager to learn of the child's gender. We waited to disclose this information after the child's birth. Soon after the delivery, the patient's husband was required to sign a document, declaring he had seen his new-born alive. When we announced it was a girl child, everyone scattered," says the resident paediatric, as he remembers the day from 2015 when he was pursuing an MBBS degree at the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Delhi. "She needed blood, and in a government hospital, a unit needs to be given to get another unit. So, our only hope was to turn to the patient's family. It was unsettling for a young doctor to see that she had been left to battle for her life." He wrote:

I woke up to clear skies and clearer roads.
A silence unwinding onto corridors
Of blue and white robes.
Like some soldier of old,
I move ahead;
and as I tread,
Into darker buildings,
no man's land,
Where wards of old,
break and fall,
and sickness stall.
It was around this time that Dr Khan took to poetry, to both treat and heal. He would spend hours back at his home in East Delhi, writing verse of tragedy. "I've seen patients dying after waiting for an ICU bed, some dying in the ICU because the room was contaminated, and some others because of the lack of proper facilities. The whole experience [of being a doctor] is unpleasant, and it was poetry that helped me heal. After writing regularly, my poems have matured, I think," says the 26-year-old, whose book, Bleed: An anthology—a collection of 50 poems—was published last year.

Dr Aheed Khan published his first book, Bleed: An Anthology, in 2019
Dr Aheed Khan published his first book, Bleed: An Anthology, in 2019

Poetry, for some physicians, is a way of embracing the hospital encounter, and escape it. There is a rich tradition of physician-poets, including John Keats, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., William Carlos Williams, and Rafael Campo. In a letter to a friend, Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who spent seven years working in a tuberculosis sanitarium in the late 1800, described his dual-career in the following manner:

Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.
When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other.
Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.
Mumbai-based neurologist Dr Siddharth Warrier, 31, has been writing poetry for 10 years. The Borivli resident, who grew up on Enid Blyton, feels liberated when he puts down a cluster of thoughts. "I was six when my mother discovered a few of my poems. Back in the day, they were mostly observational—about the grass and rain. But after entering the field of medicine, my writing has become about the people I meet and the things I see in the ward."

In 2013, when Dr Warrier was pursuing an MD degree, he joined The Poetry Club, Mumbai. This was when the spoken word scene had just birthed. "My writing improved, and the feedback helped." Around 2015, when he was ready to leave Parel's KEM Hospital, he witnessed a worrisome episode that stayed with him. "I knew a man, who had been a marathoner all his life, suddenly diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Watching his condition deteriorate each day, I realised how unfortunate it is that while your mind works fine, your body refuses to move. For a person who had been physically active all his life, it must have been devastating. I wrote a poem."

Dr Dipak Kharate has a YouTube channel where he posts videos of himself reciting poetry
Dr Dipak Kharate has a YouTube channel where he posts videos of himself reciting poetry

For Dr Dipak Kharate, 25, medical officer at the Grant Medical College in Mumbai, seeing a young patient slip away too soon invoked the passion for poetry. "Three years ago, I was in my final year MBBS at Nagpur's Indira Gandhi Government Medical College. I remember getting a call from a friend, saying his sister had met with an accident and was being brought to the hospital. He asked me to look for her, so I did. But nobody had any record of her admission to the emergency room." A resident told him she had been taken to the mortuary. "But I had to be sure, as her parents were soon to arrive. When it was confirmed that she had passed on, I had to find a way to tell her family. That night, I wrote what I was feeling, and it turned into a poem," Dr Kharate shares.

For soon, there will come a time
When this too shall have passed;
We'll know this as a tragedy
And tragedies don't last.
Then let us choose to leave behind
Other tragedies of our past.
These words came to Dr Warrier in the first week of March this year. India was reeling in the aftermath of violence following protests against the NRC and CAA. And another tragedy struck the nation—the Coronavirus outbreak. "We had not fully recovered from the brutal riots, and we already had a new war to fight. This time, however, everyone was to be in this together. Coronavirus does not infect only the poor or the rich, the god-fearing or atheists. If not anything, this virus has united us, and my poem titled, Quarantined, speaks of this."

Dr Warrier, who works at Wockhardt Hospital in Mira Road, and Dr Aheed, who is posted at MAX Hospital in Delhi, say they are yet to come in contact with a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19. Dr Aheed says, "Two suspected cases, both one-year-old kids, came to me. Fortunately, they tested negative. As a paediatrician, I've learned that children are most prone to infectious diseases. But this particular virus has been kinder to them. That is the way I like to look at it."

Once this clamour quietens down
And settles with the dust;
Let's calm our fears and
see beyond
The panic, hate and fuss;
And know this is all we are,
And all we have is us.

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