Not long ago, we studied medicine.
We’d look inside another person’s mouth
and see the desolation of the world.
We’ve studied medicine until we cried all night.
Through certain books, a truth unfolds—
anatomy and physiology,
each nameless cell contributing its needs.
[Now,] the doctors make their rounds like satellites.
The ICU is like a dream we think we can decode.
The ventilator’s rise and fall.
We listen, as if the breath sounds might not lessen.
They page us and we go.
A doctor writes an order in the chart.
A doctor writes prescriptions to be filled.
The hospital hums like a consciousness.
The coughing [is] like a symphony
a virus might conduct.
The patient’s history is a poem in the chart.
A doctor writes invisibly upon a patient’s chest,
the stethoscope’s black curl like punctuation.
They say the heart is just a muscle,
or the heart is where the human soul resides.
The body speaks [a] stranger’s language—
breath like poetry, heard almost lovingly.
It takes imagination [to transform
what we thought was] unspeakable.
No knowledge is more powerful
than knowing love,
[to be a] healer…to the feeble,
[to know that] the body speaks,
and what it tries to say
[is] more than this,
is more than what’s recorded in the chart.
[We are] an instrument of hope, of relief.
There is suffering, yes, but there is peace.
This cento (Latin for patchwork or collage poem) was composed by Dr. Rosemarie Dombrowski using lines from the following poems by Dr. Campo:
Why Doctors Write
What the Body Told
What We All Want
The Doctor’s Song
Hospital Writing Workshop
Dr. Rafael Campo is an award-winning poet and essayist, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School as well as the director of the Writing and Literature initiative. He’s also the editor of the Poetry and Medicine column for JAMA.