Sunday, July 01, 2007

Poetic Medication

The nature of this bunch of people I am associated with has painted a grainy picture in society's mind. For they have labelled us nerds, adroit androids and cookie-cutter bookworms; we apparently define our existence by the number of pages of a medical text that we have read (and/or memorised) and of how many accomplishments we have achieved (and how much money we have earned) as we fast-track our journey to Consultancy from that first step into our careers.

Why is it so difficult to equate medical students with the Arts; the anti-Science? Perhaps culture, lack of creativity and the pressures of performing (amongst others) has led many of us to not pursue this as a hobby, but to handle it as an obstacle to what little time we have left for studying. Here in Australia it seems a little more natural to pick up a footy ball and have a match between mates, rather than conjuring paintbrush strokes or rhyming words to ease the stresses of medical school. Lately, blogging has become a formidable phenomenon, engulfing the interest of all genres - medical students included, posing as a platform for a sudden spillage of life stories that allow the common people glimpses into someone else's day-to-day activities. Perhaps this could be the gentle ripple that may someday overtake the stereotypical beliefs that most medical students are devoid of inbuilt empathy, dependent on rehashed formulas that worked well for an OSCE ethics station.

Alfian Sa'at has defied convention, stringent Asian conventions to be exact, in a different way. He has embarked on a career as a successful playwright in his home country Singapore. Storing his stethoscope away for good, he decided to leave the art of medicine to peruse the art of life. His plays have been staged to critical acclaim in countries as far displaced as Sweden. Despite his insistence that his life will not revolve around ward rounds and patient care, little semblances of his experiences as a medical student has somewhat shaped his identity as an artist, evidencing the simple fact that while one can leave Medicine, Medicine will not leave him.

Here is a poem he wrote in medical school. Extracted from his anthology A History of Amnesia, which was published when he was a fourth-year, it describes his feelings in an anatomy class. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Dissection Class by Alfian Sa'at

Peel the drenched cotton
From his stony face. Some
Wisps will stick to his
Stubble, like love-grass
There is nothing to fear.
Death is its own death mask.

Next, we move the scalpel
Across the chest, gradually
Down the arms, like a zipper.
This, to your untrained eye,
Can be considered beautiful,
Even if it is only skin deep.

Expose the path of the tendons.
Observe the nerves' many detours.
The arm is like yours, these fingers.
Consider this a new instrument:
A microscope working through mirrors.

The muscles ooze sighs under your touch.
The sliced arteries uncover blood clots
Like broken wax crayons.
And bone is bone: the final resistance
Knocking against blade or teeth.

Marvel at the lungs, pyramids of air.
Weigh the liver like a moonrock in your hands.
The hollowed ribcage in a swamp of formalin.
Yes, to hold an organ up like a trophy
Makes this less desecration, more archaeology.

But this is no fossil. No history, only
Biography. Yet even palmistry fails us now;
There is nothing written on
The papyrus of this skin. No echoes
Of past lives, or a sense of deja vu:

Memory entering the head like a knife.
A girl's hands slicing the heart in two.


Giskin said...

Welcome to the blog, Diayana, and thanks for such an interesting first post! What a super poem. It's good to know about this poet.

Diyana said...

Thanks Giskin! We've just had a Developing World Conference event held by the Australian Medical Students' Association here in Adelaide. I was privileged enough to attend and I must say, it was an eye-opener. I'll translate my experiences into an article once I've got all the proper bits and pieces aligned nicely.

Giskin said...

Great -- I look forward to reading all about it.

the resident colonist said...

Hi diyana loved the poem. I'd never met him before either. Brings it all back. Especially the rib-cage swamped in formalin. Marvellous. No wonder he left medicine. But there you are right, it is very difficult to forget medicine. Like Lady Bracknell said, "Ignorance is a delicate fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone"..