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The Carletonian

Campo discusses joining of poetry and medicine into “soulful practice”

<ve a hard time finding two disciplines as different as poetry and medicine, yet Latino Heritage Month speaker, Rafael Campo, has dedicated his life to bringing poetry and medicine, and by extension, the humanities and healing together into one soulful practice. Campo’s speech, entitled “How Words Can Heal,” illustrated to last Friday’s convocation audience his belief that more humane thinking makes one a better healer. As Victor Ramirez ’11 said in his introduction of this renowned poet and doctor, “when speaking about Rafael Campo, it is hard to say whether his science is art, or whether his art is a combination of both science and poetry, eloquently fused for the sake of healing.”

An alumnus and faculty member of Harvard Medical School, Campo currently practices internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where he predominantly treats Latino, LGBT, and HIV patients. His literary work is equally as distinguished. He has received both the Annual Achievement Award from the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Amherst College. In addition, many of his books of poetry have earned awards, including the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry for “What the Body Told.”

Initially, Campo faced his fair share of setbacks. At the start of his medical training he was mired with self-doubt and wondering if he could succeed in this field due to his complex identity. His strong faith seemed out of place in a discipline that traditionally is not regarded as spiritual and as a Cuban-American he felt there were no Latino role models. He also feared being a gay doctor would spark a host of problems. Despite these worries, it turned out it was his being a poet that proved the most problematic. “My colleagues found that to be the most alarming and scary!” Campo said.

For Campo, it’s impossible to extricate his identity as a poet from his identity as a doctor and vice versa. Throughout the speech he intertwined anecdotes illustrating the power of words with readings from his books. He began with a memory of 9/11. While working in the clinic, it occurred to him that patients felt a compelling need to narrate their experiences. It was by their use of language that they could make the experience “human, to own it, to make sense of it,” he said. Campo realized that there are wounds that medicine cannot heal, but that the immense power of language can.

“We need to think about what we’re teaching medical students,” Campo said. He is a strong proponent of teaching empathy. He believes that poetry can serve as a model to bring about more compassion in doctors. He often assigns writing exercises to his students, with the intent of stimulating reflection on their medical work. With greater empathy, doctors can “recognize people in the context of their illness, which might then help them think more creatively as to how to intervene and heal outside a strict biomedical model,” Campo said.

However, not everyone agrees with his approach. He was told identifying too strongly with patients was dangerous. Others question whether it is even possible to teach empathy when simply defining the word is problematic. Yet Campo is a firm believer that one can draw on the humanities to give a sense of what it means to suffer. “There is increasing recognition for this field,” Campo explained. “In this age, we have almost become too enamored and reliant on technology. Patients are not simply the sum of their tests, but whole people with unique stories.”

Therefore, with a strong conviction in “the curative power of words,” he continues to marry the humanities with healing. After all, “poetry is made of breath and heart,” he said, “thus it’s hard to imagine poetry can’t reach those places of the body.”

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