About the two physician-poets
Both of the physician-poets represented here began putting their thoughts
into verse as teenagers, more than 35 years ago. Now, in their fifties, they find
poetry rewarding and absorbing—so much so that they do most of their writing
mentally rather than on paper.
"I write poetry all the time," says Dr. Jonathan Ross, the author of the poem
here. "Most of it is in my mind, but I have managed over the years to write
down some of it."
And Dr. Rob Foote, the author of the poem on these two pages, says that "at
any given time I am usually at work on two or three poems. Because I write slowly,
I have poems in progress memorized, so this allows me to work on them anytime
I have a few minutes of free thought."
Ross, an associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth, has been on the faculty
since 1983; he wrote an essay on generalist care for the Spring 2005 issue of
Dartmouth Medicine—a piece that is still drawing comment in our "Letters"
section (see here). He is also director of the Department of Medicine's weekly
Morbidity and Mortality conference—the subject of the cover feature in our
Summer 2003 issue. Foote, an alumnus of DHMC's internal medicine residency
program, spent many years as director of outpatient and emergency services at
New London, N.H., Hospital and since 1995 has been an assistant professor of cardiology
at DHMC. His poetry has been published several times previously in these
pages (as well as in a number of literary journals and the Annals of Internal Medicine);
his research into a possible new biomarker for heart disease was the subject
of a story in the "Discoveries" section of our Fall 2005 issue.
"I like poetry because of its capacity to convey so much in spare language," explains
Ross. "Poetry is ageless . . . it is just there, waiting patiently to emerge, if I
stop long enough to listen." This particular poem, likening the moment when a
physician enters an exam room to the act of opening a new book, was not triggered
by any particular patient, he says. "Every day there are moments that could
trigger a poem—a name on my schedule list, a glance, a thought, a laboratory value,
an x-ray. The great poets capture these moments, but we all have them."
For Foote, poetry "helps me understand my experiences of the world. It is a way
of giving them context and searching for their meaning and significance." Foote's
poem—which uses combat as an analogy for the intensity of emergency medicine—"
is a summary of many years of experiences in the emergency department,"
he explains. "After a time, I think one begins to see the universal in the particular.
It is an effort to express and understand both the experiences themselves and
their cumulative effect."
Although the two poems here are very much about medicine, both Ross and
Foote say they write more often about nonmedical subjects: "relationships,
feelings, love, hate, hope, beauty, death—the stuff of humanity," as Ross puts
it. But, notes Foote, medicine "is often a portal to elemental aspects of life."
Yet both feel that—whatever the subject—writing poetry, and reading it, have
had an impact on their work as physicians. "I hope they make me a better observer
of the less obvious aspects of my encounters with patients and with illness," says
Foote, "and that they make me a more sensitive person." Interestingly, Ross uses
almost the same words: "Poetry opens me to my feelings," he says, "and to those
of others . . . and increases my sensitivity to others' pain and expectations.
"We live our personal lives sometimes completely hidden from others, even
ourselves," Ross observes. "Our culture fosters this by emphasizing the roles we
play, not the people we are." So here, unhidden, are two of the people behind the
roles that make medicine at Dartmouth what it is.
Dana Cook Grossman
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