Paul Cowan argued that there are only two groups of people: inhabitants of the land of the well and inhabitants of the land of the sick. Regarding his visit to the latter, the late Christopher Hitchens wryly reported, “The humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited." I would add that in the land of the sick, the nativesspeak an entirely different language. Though a great deal of medical education is devoted to teaching burgeoning professionals the art of communication (viz. the language of the sick) there is often a noticeable gap in fluency between the students who have either experienced illness directly or those who had to care for a dying love one. This is not a criticism of healthy medical students or those who have been fortunate enough to escape the illness experience all together. It’s not their fault—they don’t lack empathy; they lack experience. In time though, as they build personal relationships with patients and lose those same patients, all budding health professionals will become proficient in the language of the sick; some may even pick up a related dialect, the language of death. In Hannah Baggott’s poem, “Dear Stephanie, It Made Sense”, we are given a striking and poignant example of the limits of human empathy. The poem discusses two roommates; one of which is struggling with a chronic neurological illness. The narrator in the poem, the non-afflicted roommate, while clearly perceptive and sympathetic, cannot empathize with her roommate’s pain except in retrospect, when she herself is stricken by the same illness in her later years. In the early stanzas of the poem, the narrator is bothered by her roommate’s insistence on speaking in the language of the sick. The narrators reminisces, “...I hated you / Hated that you never wanted to leave our room, / that you never stopped talking about high school, / about your pain...” Later, when she herself is ill, she begins to think in the language of the sick, realizing, “And I was just a taunt—everything you couldn’t do...I didn’t understand / that we were the same card—/ I was just the twin flipped second.”
Tom Whayne’s poem, “I Kiss You”, also touches upon the concept of human empathy and its potential to develop over time. It seems to tell the story of an older couple that is experiencing illness together. One lover leans over to kiss the other, who is in a hospital bed, covered in “plastic vines and steel”. The narrator is able to empathize with her lover’s illness and more than that, she/he appears to be so fluent in the language of the sick, that words need not be spoken. She/he recounts, “Another kiss - / Forehead, nose, mouth, / Joking, mocking, meant. / There’s a deep smile there / I know. / Beneath, / Like mine.”
Amir A. Tarsha, who is an editor at the Intima: A Journal of NarrativeMedicine, is completing his M.D. at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine with a focus in psychiatry, gender identity, and transgender health. He received an M.S. in bioethics from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a B.S. in psychology & liberal arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Medical Encounter, Neurology, The Journal of General Internal Medicine, IJPSP, Psychoanalytical Perspectives, The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, One Throne Magazine, Chiron Review, The Newer York, and elsewhere. He was formerly an editor at Obliterants and the Medical IBIS, both student-run journals at Miller. He is a regular contributor to 2MintueMedicine.com.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine