Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dance and Medicine

The mid-point of medical residency is probably the bleakest point in medical training. The daily grind of death and disease wears young doctors down, and the end of residency seems impossibly far off. In the second year of my residency at Bellevue Hospital, I began taking dance class at the Martha Graham studio in Manhattan. It turned out to be an unexpectedly visceral lifesaver for me.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, “Pas de Deux,” which appears in the new anthology from “Becoming a Doctor,” edited by Lee Gutkind. (Norton, 2010.)

“One day, after a long night in the ICU, I rushed straight to dance class, leotards under my scrubs. I had spent the bulk of my last thirty hours with Nilsa, a young woman dying of HIV. Nilsa’s body was ravaged by bacterial, viral and fungal infections. The body cavities that weren’t drowning in their own fluids were hemorrhaging blood. Her temperature never dipped below 103°. The breathing machine provided oxygen in exchange for her tuberculosis-laden breaths. I injected sedatives when she convulsed, her water-logged lungs laboring to absorb more oxygen. The nurse and I arranged icepacks around her burning skin, but they melted rapidly. Her death was slow and brutal. Her mother, two brothers, and aunt sat with her, weeping into their protective respiratory masks.

I limped out of the hospital after signing Nilsa’s death certificate. There were so many infections that I couldn’t decide which one to write for “immediate cause of death.” My sleep-starved body longed for bed, but my aching soul dragged my protesting limbs to East 63rd Street.

We were doing the plié-relevé series, a set of exercises that I have always found particularly beautiful. There is one point, in fifth position, in which the drama builds until the climax occurs with just one simple motion: a 90° twist of the body while lifting into a relevé, one arm scooping an arc into the sky. In one brief, but compelling, moment, the whole class rises into the air as a single being, sweeping its focus from the one corner of the room to the other. Physically subtle, yet emotionally dramatic, almost more so for the understatement of the movement.

…I look back now and realize that it was the continual infusion of the aesthetics of dance that helped keep me alive throughout those draining years. After each daily dose of agony and suffering, I needed not only to witness beauty, but to participate in beauty. I was well aware that I couldn’t possibly approach the feats of the advanced dancers, but that turned out not to matter at all. It was enough just to be a bit player in that world, to be a miniscule stitch in that weave of beauty.”

Reprinted from “Pas de Deux” by Danielle Ofri, from “Becoming a Doctor,” Gutkind, L., ed. ©Norton, 2010.


Danielle Ofri is a writer and practicing internist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book is Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients.

View the YouTube book trailer.

You can follow Danielle on Twitter and Facebook, or visit her homepage.

Her blog, Medicine in Translation, appears on Psychology Today’s website.

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