The Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize

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Since 2005, the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize at the University of Massachusetts Chan School of Medicine has recognized poetry, fiction, and thought-provoking essays by medical students, physicians-in-training, students medical school nursing graduates and students. One of the few creative writing prizes for medical professionals in training, the Berlin prize encourages creative writing and pays tribute to my father, who was battling a serious chronic illness. I first funded the prize with the $1,000 prize I received on my first book of poetry, How JFK killed my father, wins the Pearl Poetry Prize.

But why did I want to foster creative writing in people deeply involved in the rigorous demands of medical training? And why name the prize for my father?

When my father turned 37, he was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Over the next few years, the autoimmune process evolved to include inflammatory bowel disease, diagnosed at the time as a combination of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. I was 13 the year he fell ill, and what happened in the years leading up to his death from colon cancer at age 56 had a major impact on my life and my career.

My father had the best doctors in the world: a renowned hematologist (before the specialty included oncology); and the hematology fellow who cared for my dad while he was in training, continued to be his doctor after he opened a practice where we lived in northern New Jersey. As connected as my father felt with his team of doctors for many years, he often said, “They know my numbers, but they don’t know me.” When he began complaining of symptoms suggestive of colon cancer, his doctors did not respond for over a year. For some reason, including the complexity of his medical condition, they couldn’t hear him. While I know they did their best, I think if they had listened a little more carefully or related to his suffering in a different way, my dad might have been correctly diagnosed. and treated a little earlier, and he might have lived a few years longer with a better quality of life.

For many years I didn’t think about all the ways my father’s illness affected my career choice, but in retrospect it’s obvious to me that much of my life as a doctor has been geared towards finding ways to bring doctors closer to their patients, first in my work as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist, and more recently as a poet.

I didn’t write my first poem until my early forties. During the first years of writing, no matter how I started a draft poem, the final draft often ended up being about my father. Eventually I had written enough poems to collect them into a book and began my search for a publisher. If you haven’t tried publishing a book of poetry, I must warn you: this is not a process for thin skin. Over a period of 4 years, the manuscript of How JFK Killed My Dad was rejected 214 times before winning the Pearl Poetry Prize and being published. During all the rejections, I thought of how my father faced much greater difficulties in his own life, persevering through his illness, rarely missing a day of work, retaining his sense of hope and retaining his sense of humor. When the book was printed and I received the $1,000 cash prize, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to spend it. But after careful consideration, I knew my father would have liked the idea of ​​me using the award to encourage the creative writing efforts of people in medical training. I was hoping this would be a good way to bring caregivers closer to their patients.

How do creative writing and all the arts bring us closer to our patients? The ancient symbol of medicine, the caduceus, holds 2 snakes in constant tension with each other: one snake represents knowledge, the other snake represents wisdom. Knowledge is our book learning, our data, our lab tests, and our technical skills. Wisdom resides in our ability to understand the emotional and spiritual core of our patients through empathy, the skill that allows us to relate to illness and suffering from the perspective of our patients. I believe that creative writing offers health professionals in training (and after training too!) a privileged opportunity to reflect on their experiences, maintain their humanity and increase their empathy for the suffering of their patients. These are qualities that bring doctors closer to their patients, and I know these are the qualities my father hoped for and admired in his own doctors.

Eighteen years later, the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize has inspired hundreds of medical students, nursing students, doctoral students and nurses to reflect on their experiences and turn them into poetry, short stories, reflective writing and even a stage. of a play. And when judging the prize submissions (along with 2 co-workers), I think how much my dad would have liked to read the plays. I also remember the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, who described poetry with words I would use to describe the practice of medicine. Neruda said “poetry [and I would substitute “medicine”] includes decrees of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, thirst for justice, sexual desire, sound of the ocean, nothing deliberately excluded, nothing deliberately accepted, entry into the depth of things in an act of unbridled love.

Doctor Berlin writes a poem about his experience as a doctor every month for 24 years in Psychiatric Times™. He is a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts. His latest book is Freud on my sofa.


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