Claire Bogan received her medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on Saturday, but she also left with something else: a book of poetry.
The medical school presented each of its more than 400 graduates at campuses in Philadelphia and Georgia with “Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors,” a compilation edited by doctors and with many of the pieces written by doctors.
As the students embark on a fast-paced, pressure-filled clinical career path, where maintaining fresh empathy is a daily struggle, they can draw moments of inspiration from the pocket-sized bundle of humanity, meant to fit snugly in their white-coat pockets.
The book offers lyrical commentary on illnesses and mainstay clinical experiences, things that happen at the beginning of life, the end, and during typical medical moments. “The Precious 10 Minutes” is a poem about that brief exchange between patient and doctor during an appointment; “Second Opinion,” about a patient facing malignancy.
As more medical schools look to integrate the humanities into the curriculum, the idea is to remind doctors they are treating humans, not illnesses.
“I couldn’t have been more excited,” said Bogan, 29, of Cherry Hill, a self-described poetry lover. “I thought it was a really meaningful gift and something I’m absolutely going to keep in my white coat.”
The book originated in Scotland, and since 2014, every medical school graduate there — about 900 annually — has received it. PCOM becomes the first medical school in the United States to give the book to all of its graduates, including the 275 at the City Avenue campus.
The gift came about after Murray Zedeck, 81, a 1962 PCOM graduate, read a story about the Scotland effort in the Wall Street Journal. He called up Carrie Collins, PCOM’s chief advancement officer, and said he wanted students at the Philadelphia campus to receive the books, too, and would pay the $2,500 for them.
She couldn’t find the book on Amazon but then recalled she had served on an international philanthropy commission with an advancement officer from a Scotland medical university involved in the book project and reached out. Through him, she got in touch with the Scottish publisher. (An anonymous donor paid for the books for graduates on the Georgia campus.)
“Dr. Zedeck feels very passionate about not just teaching medical school students to be good doctors but to be good human beings,” she said.
College president Jay S. Feldstein saw the merit. A former emergency medicine doctor, Feldstein remembers the grueling pace interns and residents face, the sleepless nights, visits with patient after patient.
“I could have used that book many times,” he said.
The gift also fits well with osteopathic colleges’ holistic approach, he said.
“We’re all human beings first before we’re physicians,” he said, “and part of being a human being and part of being a really caring physician is having compassion and being in touch with our souls. Poetry in terms of the humanities has always been a way for one to get in touch with their soul.”
Feldstein knows firsthand. He has written poetry “on a train ride, or at the beach, or if it’s snowing outside” and especially likes Robert Frost.
Zedeck doesn’t write poetry, but he enjoys reading it and notes that his mother’s family are descendants of the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine.
A longtime benefactor of the college, Zedeck also funds a humanities lecture series, another attempt to inject the human touch into a science-intensive curriculum.
He joined the profession at a time when doctors made house calls. His patients were his friends. For years he practiced in the Fort Lauderdale area. Even when he retired, those in their 80s or 90s refused to let him go, he said. They’d visit for medical advice, and he wouldn’t charge them. So they brought him flowers, he said.
“I think it’s important to spend time with people, to look at the human side, not just the clinical side,” he said.
In Scotland, all five medical universities distribute the book. Staff at the University of St. Andrews took it a step further and posted videos of themselves reading some poems and reflecting on their meaning.
“I’m a great enthusiast of it,” said David Crossman, a cardiologist and dean of medicine at St. Andrews.
He recalled as a junior doctor carrying poems by T. S. Eliot and having time only to read four or five lines but finding comfort.
At PCOM, students browsed through the 96-page book after receiving it at commencement practice. It includes five sections: Looking after yourself. Looking after others. Beginnings. Being with illness. Endings.
Even those who weren’t poetry fans appreciated the gesture. Those who are, including Veronica Williams, appreciated it more. Williams especially liked “A brief format to be used when consulting with patients,” a poem that highlights misunderstandings that can occur between doctor and patient.
“I think it underscores the importance of truly listening to each other,” said Williams, 29, of Lancaster, Calif., who will do her internal medicine residency at Roxborough Memorial and Chestnut Hill Hospitals.
Bogan favored “The Guest House.”
The poem begins:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Said Bogan: “It’s about accepting emotions as they come and sort of allowing yourself to experience that emotion even if it’s negative, because all of those things … can deepen our understanding.”
As an undergraduate at Rutgers-Camden, she started as a writing and literature major and has written poetry since first grade. As her interests migrated to medicine, she saw how poetry could help with treatment.
“The value of poetry in medicine was the center of my residency application essay, how it can be therapeutic for both patients and the provider,” said Bogan, who will be a psychiatric resident at Hahnemann. “I find often when I read poetry, it helps deepen my ability to kind of communicate to patients using metaphors. Using more eloquent language helps capture their experience and reflects it back in a way that can be really therapeutic for people.”