P., & Guernsey, D., eds. Gross

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This anthology is a sequel to Pulse: The First Year (2010). Both anthologies are comprised of postings to the website “Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine,” an online publication that sends out short poems and prose pieces every Friday. As the website subtitle suggests, the topics are from the medical world, the writing is personal (not scientific), and the writers give voice to feelings and perceptions from their direct experience as care-givers, patients, or family members of patients. All the pieces are short (typically one to five pages), usually with a tight subject focus. For example, in "Touched," Karen Myers reports how massage has helped her muscular dystrophy. 

The postings in the second anthology originally appeared from April 2009 through December of 2010. Because the 87 pieces appear in the order they were published, they don’t have linear coherence. Therefore the editors of have thoughtfully provided four indices in the back of the book: by author, by title with summaries, by healthcare role, and by subject/theme.

Prose pieces vary widely in style and technique. The poems are almost all free verse, although some poets have used regular stanzas. “Depression Session,” (p. 157) is an 18-line poem by a physician about a difficult mental patient. Many of the pieces explore the intensity of medical subjects with impacts on doctor, patient, and/or family. Some of them show limits of medicine. “Pearls before swine” (p. 191) relates the experience of a third-year medical student in a rotation at the office of a racist and sexist physician. “Babel: the Voice of Medical Trauma” (p. 158) dramatically tells the story of a poorly handled birth at a hospital.  

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)


In 2008, editor and physician Paul Gross launched a new online publication, "Pulse--voices from the heart of medicine" (published by the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center). This anthology contains every poem and first-person narrative published during Pulse's first year, arranged in five sections corresponding to publication date and not to theme: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.  Paul Gross, in his introduction, states "After more than a decade of practice as a family doctor, I came to appreciate that the science I'd learned in medical school, though powerful and useful, was also incomplete . . . . it contained much truth about illness and healing, but not the whole truth" (xvii).  Like many other caregivers, Gross discovered "that writing and sharing my healthcare stories with others was therapeutic" (xviii).  He looked to "Sun Magazine" as an example of how first person narratives, both prose and poems, could turn "hurts and triumphs into something potentially beautiful, funny or moving" (xviii). 

The poems and prose that arrive every Friday online to Pulse's thousands of subscribers (and the selections in this anthology) are carefully screened by the editors according to these guidelines: the stories have to be first-person, and they have to be true, recounting the writer's own experience.  Submissions are accepted from any person involved in healthcare.  The language used must be "clear, simple language.  No medical jargon. No arcane literary devices" (xx).  Gross and his editors decided that Pulse would not be a medical journal nor a literary magazine--its purpose fell outside the perimeters of both genres--and so Pulse, and this anthology, offers work that is, in a refreshing and honest way, different from the slick or more polished poetry and prose that might be found elsewhere.

In reading this anthology from cover to cover, and so from season to season, I found that the poems and prose seemed to fall into several categories: Personal musings, in which authors relate healthcare experiences that engender intimate and revealing narratives about their own lives--among the best of these are "Well Baby Check," p.3; "Finding Innisfree," p. 31; "First Patient," p. 39; "Losing Tyrek," p. 45; "Carmen's Story," p. 62; and "Chemo? No Thanks," p. 106.  Other pieces are commentaries on the other side of healthcare, the one that cries out for reform and affects both patients and caregivers.  Among the best of these are "Redesigning the Practice of Medicine," p. 9; "A Brush with the Beast," p. 22; "Rx," p. 60; "Halloween Horrors," p. 69; and "Brain Cutting," p. 136.

Other pieces are humorous ("Aunt Helen Sees a Ghost," p. 6) or political ("My War Story," p. 11), and many poems and prose pieces speak of patient encounters or about being a patient, some more anecdotal, relating a specific incident that affected the author ("Once," p. 41) and others multi-layered, some relating medical student or intern experiences ("Jeannie," p. 48; "A View from Nepal," p. 87; "Ripped from the Headlights," p. 90; "Snowscape," p. 97; "First Night Call," p. 100; and "Wounded Messenger," p. 114.)  The "category" I found most interesting and most unique are the selections I will call "confessions."  These writings--demonstrating openess and bravery on the part of the authors--tell of regrets, mistakes, sorrows, wrong calls and other mishaps that occur, daily, in the practice of healthcare.  In these, the most human face of caregiving is revealed.  Although most of the pieces in this anthology contain elements of "confession," the most specifically revealing include "Mothers and Meaning," p. 14; "Physician's Exasperation," p. 44; "Confidential," p. 53; "My Patient, My Friend," p. 73; and "Apologies," p. 104.

Editor's note: Coincidentally, a recent relevant paper on confessional writing by physicians expounds further on this topic:"Bless Me Reader for I Have Sinned: physicians and confessional writing" by Delese Wear and Therese Jones (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vo. 53, No.2, Spring 2010, pp. 215-30).


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