Poetry by Cate Chason: A Gift for GHHS Chapters

Poems for Medical Students

This post is part of our collection of “Gold Nuggets” —  our way of alerting the medical community to original artwork, poetry or multimedia that stimulate discussion and reflection.

In a blog post titled “Toward the clinical humanities: How literature and the arts can help shape humanism and professionalism in medical education“, Johanna Shapiro, PhD writes “I have never found a better way of  encouraging students to ask questions and of stimulating a critical position in regards to the answers that emerge, than by having them read a poem or participate in a skit or gaze at a painting.”

If you have something you think would make for good discussion by the medical community, you can submit a Gold Nugget by following these instructions

Cate Chason began writing poems for the first time while living in the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was late fall of 2009. Cate’s daughter Lillian had contracted the H1N1 virus and was hospitalized at UNC Hospitals. Lungs failing, she was placed on life support. For 26 days, until Lil’s death on December 16, poems came forth. They strengthened Cate during Lil’s illness and they continue to support and comfort during the never-ending grief process.

One year after Lil died, Fred Schiffman, MD of Alpert Medical School at Brown University invited Cate to share these poems with the school’s Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) students so that they might better understand the grief of parents who lose their child. For many years these compassionate young women and men have listened to, recited and discussed these poems, opening their hearts and eagerly learning about profound sorrow.

Cate has graciously sent a copy of her new book, Poems for Medical Students, to all 100+ GHHS Chapters. Discussion questions from Dr. Schiffmann follow three of her poems below. It is Cate’s hope that these poems may help any student of life approach the mysteries and profundities of grief.

New Moon

One tiny candle pulsed from Lillian’s
small half window.  Hope emanated
large from that concrete gray building,
that hospital of miracles.

Patrick moved methodically
his large mass danced around her bed
working IV lines, replacing empty bags
hung from stalwart poles.

A liquid show of gravity forced
slow drips of meticulously
calculated pharmaceuticals,
into Lillian.

His 6’5” to her 5’2” –
he anointed her eyes and lips
to keep supple such sacred child,
through the dark night,
that first Night of Lights

I see him now, easily
lifting her in his arms
cradling her like an infant,
like a new life come to us

like the way
the new moon
holds the old moon
in its arms.

My Dear Lillian

You spin and whirl in your beautiful body full
of needles and tubes as big as garden hoses
that pump your blood out
into clear plastic for all
of us to see.

Eleven days cocktails of ammunition
have flowed through your veins.
When that war is over,
your body a battlefield
laid bare.

We wait for cool spring rains to push up
and out anything — tender and green.
Anything green. We wait
on sweet little miracles
rarely seen.

Your young woman body still beautiful
still strong, yet very still. We believe
there is time to win back
that precious body,
your life.

Instead my sweetheart, you are now our dance
light music,   toe tapping,   soft shoeing,
spins and whirls, our dance always
ending in a dip followed forever,
over and over by our
endless ovation.

Reminder Enough

Sometimes,
something so simple
as a wooden spoon
buried upright
in the coffee canister

bought in a lovely place,
in a kinder time
is reminder enough
for the stained mind
to reach beyond
the insistent pain, into
that next happy thing.

Discussion Questions by Fred Schiffman, MD
  1. Having read some of this poetry, how do you consider the intersection of grief, suffering and the creative urge?
  2. Do you believe that creating these poems was an important coping mechanism?
  3. Are these good poems?  If you didn’t know the circumstances of their creation, are they well composed and would they have the same meaning or power?
  4. Which poems are your favorite and why?
  5. In your own lives, with your own experiences, which poems resonate with you, and why?
  6. From this exercise, what have you learned so that in your role as a caregiver, you will be able to better understand and address the meaning of loss?

Learn more about Cate Chason and her daughter, Lillian, by visiting www.lillianchason.com

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