Eyes closed, lips pressed in a determined smile or grimace, back hunched to brace against the forlorn landscape, the central figure in Renua Giwa-Amu’s piece “Elmer” reminds me of my own medical journey. A fourth-year student on the verge of graduation, I reflect on how my entire education thus far has been dependent on the pain and illness of countless patients I have read about or cared for. It’s hard to say whether the syringe ridden by Giwa-Amu’s determined figure is filled with medicine or blood, but the needle is reminiscent of my own poem, "Fear of Causing Pain (Intima, Spring 2015).
Learning medicine is not easy. You are simultaneously balancing your intellectual experience of another person’s suffering with your emotional experience as a witness and caregiver. The word “compassion” comes from the Latin for “suffer with.” How do we become accustomed, even comfortable, in that space of shared suffering while we both abstractly acknowledge and concretely intellectualize it? For me, the balance isn’t intuitive; it’s a level of comfort with sickness that I have yet to achieve. To become comfortable with the balance “of plunging the steel / …into strange veins that will / wince and curl away” in order “to separate the chaff of pain / from the possible grain of / something strange growing / there” will require a “transmutation,” as I wrote in my poem.
Giwa-Amu’s figure seems to be in the midst of such a transmutation. The bleak vagueness of the gray landscape around her recalls the uncertainty and desolation of illness. We don’t always know when or if the patient will get better, if the treatment will work, if the pain will subside. But we ride along with our patients, simultaneously causing discomfort as we draw blood or give medicines with unpleasant side effects in hopes of a net positive effect for our patients. The intimacy of this sort of relationship with other people’s most personal experiences is where the discomfort lies. Wanting to heal is a natural human instinct. But riding through that journey with a patient – and all that it implies – with “a straight face” is a learned ability. Like Giwa-Amu’s sister, to whom her drawing is dedicated, it’s an ability I am only just beginning to grasp.
Irène Mathieu is a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University. She has studied International Relations at the College of William and Mary and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in the Dominican Republic. Mathieu’s poetry, prose, and photography can be found in *The Caribbean Writer, the Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Extract(s), So to Speak, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal **of General Internal Medicine, Love Insha’Allah, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, and HEArt Journal*. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Callaloo fellow.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine