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The Poetry of Healing

campo-headshot-colorRafael Campo, MD MFA is an award-winning poet and essayist, as well as an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and internist at healthcare associates at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was born in New Jersey in 1964 and attended Amherst College, followed by Harvard Medical School for his MD and Boston University for his MFA. He published his first collection of poems, The Other Man was Me: A Voyage to the New World in 1993, when it won the National Poetry Series Award. He has published many books of poetry since then, including Landscape with Human Figure (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), What the Body Told (winner of a Lambda Literary Award), and Alternative Medicine. He has also written two prose collections: The Healing Art: A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry and The Poetry of Healing. Campo has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Echoing Green Foundation to support his work, and received the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award. In his medical practice in Boston, Campo primarily serves Latinos, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people, and people with HIV infection. He also serves on the faculty of the Lesley University Creative Writing MFA program, and runs a poetry workshop for Harvard Medical School students. 

I went to a poetry reading by Dr. Campo last year and was struck by his passion for both medicine and poetry, and ability to have the two disciplines not only co-exist, but also nurture each other. We sat down to chat about his childhood, his path to literature and medicine, and his advice for other physicians with creative passions:

VV: What was your life like growing up, and what drew you to medicine as well as writing?

Dr. Campo: For me, the two have been joined in my imagination for a long time. As a child, I spent a lot of time in Venezuela, amidst significant poverty, which led me to see the world through a different lens. I had this very idealistic sense of service and repairing the broken world that I think many of us have when we first think about entering medicine. I’m of Latino background; my father is Cuban and an immigrant to the United States. There were all these kinds of stories around my background, my culture, and my heritage that seemed bound up in this idea of serving and healing. From a very early age, I imagined that by trying to tell those stories and recover some of those lost narratives, in a way I could repair this sense of brokenness that I felt as an immigrant to the U.S., and the sense of loss of my culture in many ways. I also wanted to enter into the narratives of people in the U.S. who were of similar immigrant backgrounds, and really try to help them tell their stories.

VV: When you started medical school, were you going in thinking you were going to keep your interest in writing poetry active and alive, or did you feel like you were choosing one or the other in the beginning?

Dr. Campo: As many of us who enter medicine feel, I felt that the science of medicine really had to be all-consuming, it had to be my focus, and anything outside of that was extraneous. Unfortunately, in medical school and throughout medical training, we do tend to overvalue the biomedical and fact-based. I’ve heard attendings tell me, “I don’t want to hear about where she works, or what’s going on at home, just tell me, what are the facts. What’s the potassium, how many lymph nodes are positive on the CT scan? I don’t want to get into all that kind of amorphous stuff.” And you know, my sense has always been that that aspect of the experience of illness—the story that the patient tells—actually is central to what we do. But with time and with experience, I realized that I didn’t have to keep them separate, that they weren’t two different kinds of things, that they were actually integrally connected in how we can know about the experience of illness. Both, I think, are equally important. Being good listeners, being empathetically present for our patients really makes us much more effective healers in the broader sense.

VV: What made you to decide to take a year off between your third and fourth year of medical school to pursue an MFA in poetry?

Dr. Campo: I came to a crossroads in my medical training where I felt, after my third year, that I made a terrible mistake going into medicine. I didn’t realize that there would be almost no attention to the humanistic aspects of caring for patients. It was all biomedical and pathophysiology, and differential diagnosis and physical diagnosis skills, and so little about what I thought was really critical, which was again, listening to the patients, understanding their stories, and being present for them in their moments of suffering. In those days, it was even less integrated into the curriculum and into the training experience, this notion of humanistic medicine and the humanities, and the idea that stories were really part of caring for patients. And so I was actually thinking, maybe I should leave medicine, when I took that year off. When I started that year, it was just this sort of sense of the floodgates opening, and I rediscovered what I believed from the beginning, which was that these stories, these narratives, these encounters with patients, which really I had always experienced as a kind of poetry, actually were critically important to being a good doctor. Writing for a year and really immersing myself in those stories and those narratives renewed my passion for healing and for medicine, and so I came back to my fourth year of medical school feeling really revitalized, re-energized, feeling this is definitely what I want to be doing, and ever since, I have integrated the two much more effectively. I realized it didn’t have to be either one or the other; they were really utterly interconnected.

VV: Doing the MFA at BU must have been great in terms of connecting you with other poets as well.

Dr. Campo: Yes, it was so sustaining for me. I studied with Derek Walcott who won the Nobel Prize when I was at BU, and Robert Pinsky, who was the US poet laureate during that time. Seeing these incredible figures who really engaged in such a powerful way with the culture around us made me rethink what was most important in terms of how to be of service and how to be a healer. I realized that poets and humanists in a broad sense contribute just as much, if not more, to healing our culture and our society in a broader sense, by giving voice to the marginalized, the people who don’t get heard. They call us to ways of knowing about suffering about the end of life about aspects of human experience that honestly medicine hasn’t entirely explicated yet.


A poem published by Rafael Campo in 2014 and featured on the Academy of American Poets website.

VV: When do you tend to write your poems? Do you set aside time?

Dr. Campo: I feel like I live most of my life inside poems when I’m in my clinic seeing my patients. I take care of a lot of Spanish-speaking patients, and the metaphoric language they use to describe symptoms, like “the pain feels like a cold wind blowing through my liver,” can be so vivid and compelling. Often when I do have that hour at the end of the day, or even sometimes that two minutes between patients, or when I’m trying to eat my five almonds for lunch or whatever, I write something down. Often the poem—it’s usually a poem—is much more polished than I had realized when I first sat down to write it. The analogy I often use is that when you’re immersed in language, it’s almost like a river, a current of water over stones in a riverbed. These narratives kind of unconsciously shape what I ultimately then put down on the page.

VV: Do you carry around a journal?

Dr. Campo: I do, I love to journal. I also actually encourage my patients to tell their stories to themselves, and write a journal. I think it can really help them articulate what’s going on inside their bodies and inside their heads, and then when we meet in person, they’ll bring their journals and share with me what they’ve written. It can be extremely helpful clinically because it also helps me engage their stories and not do what so many of us do and interrupt in the first two minutes.

VV: Do you have any advice for medical students or residents who are interested in keeping up their writing or creative pursuit?

Dr. Campo: I would say, number one, it’s important. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not relevant or that you don’t have time for it. What has been so helpful for me has been to really defend the space in my life for this. That means when I am engaged in this work, it’s my time for renewal and reflection, and I recognize that by doing this I am not removing myself from patient care or distancing myself. On the contrary, I’m going to be a more attentive listener and I’m going to be more present for my patients if I take this time that’s going to be necessary for reflection. See it as part of the work of being a healer in a broad sense. I would also say, make it part of your daily practice. Like exercise, like eating healthy, I think for me, and I think for many of us, some kind of engagement with the humanities is an important part of that self-care. I set aside an hour every day to exercise, and I set aside an hour every day to reflect and to write and to read. Even if I write just one page in my journal or one line of poetry, it’s important to do that and make it really part of my daily routine. I counsel my patients all the time about what is beneficial for them in terms of maintaining their health, and so if I am asking them to do it, I should ask the same of myself.


Some poems that Dr. Campo likes to share with medical students: