A Poem by Dr. Monisha Vasa
What Needed To Be Said
It is late and I am waiting
and I remember the things
my patients said today
were all the things that needed
to be felt and spoken and heard.
Like “I’m so angry” and
in the next breath,
“I think I need to let go of all the hurt.”
Yes, me too.
And my patient who can’t
remember me anymore, asking
“Why does nothing feel welcoming?”
I don’t know, but I wish it did.
I believe the three of you today
who still feel miserable
but want off the meds,
and I remembered how I barely
take my Synthroid.
And you, beautiful, smart you
who walked out the door
straight into the arms of your abuser,
and you tell me you can’t?, won’t? leave.
All I see is your power,
waiting behind you,
waiting for you
to turn around.
On the inspiration for this piece
I had finished a long day of seeing patients, and I had all of these snippets of conversations and moments running through my mind. I started jotting down some of the words and phrases that were said, and also words and phrases that were not said. Our patients’ words are powerful. They stay with us, long after the patient has left the room, changing us. Our patients’ stories are often our own stories, and when we take a moment to reflect, we can see ourselves in each other.
On the beauty of poetry
I think poetry gets right to the heart of an experience. Within a few words, both the poet and reader can feel a moment together, even without a backstory or explanation. A fully formed essay or blog post can explain a situation, but sometimes can’t quite speak to the pure emotion of what transpired. That is the beauty of poetry. I also like how poetry can feel spontaneous, a little unformed and imperfect, different each time you take it all in. That is a true metaphor for how the encounter between physician and patient feels as well.
On poetic identity as a physician
I started experimenting with poetry in an online writing group, about two years ago. I never considered myself a poet before, and even now, I struggle with that term given my lack of formal education in poetry. As doctors, we like to be experts, to have learned something in depth, before we feel we can comfortably practice something. Poetry has been the exact opposite for me. Without formal training or knowledge, I have a sense of freedom to express myself in the ways that feel right. Poetry gives me an opportunity to process the emotions that arise within me as a result of doctoring, and also gives me a way to share those emotions with my patients. It has started conversations with my patients that would never have arisen otherwise.
On the intersection between storytelling and medicine
Poetry, and my current studies in Narrative Medicine, show me the powerful intersections between storytelling and the practice of medicine. The more we can closely absorb and understand the stories our patients are telling us, the more we can understand their symptoms, diagnoses, and perhaps most importantly, how they are changed by their experiences of illness. Similarly, we come to understand our own stories of caring for patients, and how that changes who we are as people. Words bring me back, over and over, to the meaning of what we do. And when I am in touch with purpose and meaning, I am in touch with why I practice medicine.
Monisha Vasa, MD is a board-certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist. She is in private practice in Newport Beach, California, and also teaches medical humanities and topics related to physician well-being at the UC Irvine School of Medicine. She is currently a scholar of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, and enjoys playing with words on her blog. Dr. Vasa is a mother of two children, has a house full of animals, and enjoys long-distance running and mindfulness practices when she needs a break from all of the above. Vasa is a 2018–19 Doximity Author.