Medical Association Journal 12/12/2000, Vol. 163 Issue
Reading bodies, not books
By P. Mony Singh
When I began medical school, I resolved not to change. Or at least, I
resolved not to give up those interests and aspirations that were most
important to me: literature and creative writing. I wanted to keep
intact my premedical self and experience life as a science student and
physician-in-training without losing who I was in the process.
I knew medical school would be hard -- my time short and my days
interminable. What could be better, I thought, at the end of a busy day
of lectures and a busy evening of studying, than to read some Chekhov,
Allende, Rushdie or Mistry? I imagined myself sinking into bed, sinking
into those books and emerging the following morning refreshed and ready
to add to my medical knowledge.
The tumult of experiences, facts and patients I encountered created a
rush of thoughts and feelings. I marvelled at how a patient's medical
history, taken over a brief hour, was a condensed narrative of a life. I
wanted to put it all down on paper. Clearly there was much fodder I
could whip into narratives and weave into plots -- or so I initially
But I have found that I am mostly storied out by the time I get home
each night. I've been taught cases based on real patients, read how
illness affects people's lives, listened to a patient discuss life with
a disease and chronicled the transformation of cells involved in a
pathologic process. By the end of the day, the last thing I want to do
is pick up a book and read it.
So where is the poetry in my life? In my first year of medical school
there were half-read novels in my room, open at pivotal pages, crushed
under the weight of my formidable medical textbooks. I learned a lot
from my textbooks and my classes, but the beauty of language was missing
from my life.
When I did try to read fiction, usually half asleep, my mind heavy with
the events of the day and week, my brain steeped in the facts of
anatomy, physiology and immunology, I had trouble concentrating. Graphs
of mortality rates for lymphomas, the stillness of bodies in the cadaver
room, a slide of a woman with rhinocerebral mucormycosis, her face eaten
away by fungus -- all of these things crowded into my brain and left no
room for another's imagination.
I even began feeling guilty whenever I did fish out a novel. First,
because there was always an imminent exam to study for, and second,
because medicine was changing me and I had no time to reflect on this
change -- let alone contest it. As a result, I dove into my studies
early on, abandoning my "other" books, and decided to concentrate on
Now that I'm in my second year of medical school, I'm a lot better at
carving out time for myself in order to pursue my interests -- and to
reflect on how I've changed. The art of separating my medical self from
my reading and writing self will continue to take time and, who knows, I
may not even want that separation after awhile.
When I began medical school I came across a quotation by Sir William Osler.
This passage, which I first read as a dismal statement on medical life, I now
read with growing insight: "Nothing will sustain you," Osler wrote to
the new physician, "more potently than the power to recognize in your humdrum
routine, as perhaps it may be thought, the true poetry of life -- the poetry of
the commonplace, of the ordinary man, of the plain, toil-worn woman, with their
loves and their joys, with their sorrows and their griefs."
This past year and a half I've discovered the eye-opening, touching and
exhausting world of medicine and I wouldn't give it up for anything
--not even for time and a well-stocked library. Perhaps Osler was right;
the poetry in my life doesn't need to be in books.
P. Mony Singh is a second-year medical student at the University of