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So can you

By William B. Toms, M.D., M.P.H.

Family physician Bill Toms has been listening for the stories his patients tell ever since he began tending to their aches, pains, and dying wishes. Now retired from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, he helps medical students use writing as a way to learn how to be a better doctor.

What's this about poetry?" Bill Toms says to a class of Dartmouth medical students, suggesting what some of them might be thinking. "I'm a med student," he goes on in the guise of this hypothetical student, "a scientist, not a poet. If I wanted to be a poet, I'd be getting an M.A. in writing or literature, or staring at a flower or a cloud. I'm a scientist, damn it, so let me go memorize something—quickly."

But Toms doesn't let such students off the hook. He goes on to share a few reflections by famous physician-writers like William Carlos Williams and Albert Schweitzer. Then he reminds the students how supple verse can be. "Verse can be shorthand," he says, reading off a PowerPoint slide that is almost haiku-like in its rhythm and concision. "Verse can be fertile, alive. Verse can be ambiguous like medicine. Verse can adapt to your style, eyes, ears, personality. Verse can personalize."

"Okay, that's nice," Toms now surmises his typical student thinking. "But poetry is too hard to understand. It's too squishy and vague and weird and just . . . out there!" Besides, this jaded student goes on, "I'm a terrible writer—I could never write a poem, especially a poem about medicine."

Toms firmly disagrees on this point. "I think you can," he tells his DMS class. "I think you will," he adds. "And I think when you do, it will, someday, be important to you."

Writing has clearly been important to Toms. "If I can write poems for 40 years, so can you," he tells students. "If I can remember a little better, listen a little better, learn a little better, feel a little better, survive a little better, and maybe be a little bit better doctor because of writing a poem, so can you."

On the following pages are several examples of what Toms calls his "short stories in verse."

Dana Cook Grossman

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Toms has practiced family medicine in New Hampshire for over 30 years, retiring in 2005 as medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene; the same year, he was named New Hampshire Physician of the Year by the New Hampshire Hospital Association. He still practices part-time in rural Maine, where he enjoys hearing his patients' stories.

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