| Healing words

Dr. Rafael Campo uses poetry to heal, even where there is no cure


Megan Galeucia

There is something deeply dissatisfying about going to the doctor and leaving empty-handed – no prescription, no pills. It’s as if we need to put something external into our bodies in order to feel better, or to feel healed.

Western society is deeply-rooted in this paradigm of the dualism of mind and body. We often believe that any bodily illness will disappear once we ingest the appropriate pill. Aspirin cures headaches, caffeine wakes us up, and going to the doctor when we’re sick is the magic ticket for an antibiotic that will quickly restore our health.

Dr. Rafael Campo, however, is a physician who attempts to transcend the separation of the mind and body entrenched in our biomedical system, and he does, perhaps surprisingly, by writing poetry. A Harvard Medical School trained physician, Campo’s aim is to heal the body, but he also branches away from classical medicine by using poetry to heal the soul.

Last Thursday at Concorida, Campo read a variety of his poems and gave a lecture called “What the Body Told: Poetry and HIV/AIDS.” He specifically outlined his work with HIV/AIDS patients, with whom he looks to develop a special relationship through poetry. To Campo, poetry “reinterprets [illness] as the beginning point to healing.”

In relation to mind-body dualism, Campo sees a similar contrast in the roles of doctor and patient. He attempts to become a part of his patients’ narratives through poetry, exploring the realities of their suffering along with them.

More than once, Campo has been criticized for becoming too close with his patients, but that is exactly his intention.

In Campo’s office, patients’ files are not composed with the expected pages of test results and doctor’s scrawl. Instead, they narrate each patient’s history and personal account of his or her deep suffering and fear. The narratives from his patients’ files migrate into Campo’s own notebooks, where he reappropriates medical jargon like “needles,” “somaticism,” and “cervical lymph nodes” into explorative terms that create imagery and evoke empathy. The poems’ organic tempos and cadences emulate the body’s rhythms.

Campo takes an innovative and dynamic stance on medical consultation by inviting his patients to participate in the writing process. Together, they explore the ways in which HIV is affecting them, not just what they should do about it. The reasons “why” encompass both the cultural context and other external socioeconomic forces relating to the patient’s situation. These aspects need to be considered to a greater extent in Western medicine than they are today. Maybe then the poet-physician combination wouldn’t seem so counter-intuitive.

While I must admit that Campo’s skills as a medical practitioner most likely exceed his skills as a poet, this is of little matter – his poems are important for their impact in initiating the healing process.


Mathura Thevarajah

A major complaint of patients today is that they are not being heard. While society seems to be moving toward a model of minimal social contact, where language in not employed effectively to connect with others, one need only think about the large-scale appeal of Facebook. For his part, Dr. Raphael Campo believes that we all have an inborn capacity for expressive language, which could help improve physicians’ connections with their patients.

Campo stresses the role of expressive language and empathetic listening, both of which can help physicians to better understand how a patient copes with and perceives their illness. This understanding would make physicians more attuned to the important socio-psychological aspects of living with a specific illness that bear directly on patients’ response to treatment.

“Empathetic listening not only helps physicians make sense of the report of symptoms, but [it] also strengthens the doctor-patient trust which is so crucial for healing,” Campo says.

Campo explains that poetry was the first medium that allowed him to speak empathetically with his patients. For Campo, poetry is a tool for fostering self-knowledge and self-awareness, both crucial first steps in being able to empathize with others.

“Poetry asked me to immerse myself in the voice of another consciousness. By practicing poetry I have learned to listen more… deeply, and [thereby] have become a more effective healer,” he says.

Initially, Campo turned to poetry as a coping mechanism for the alienation he experienced during his formal medical training. He recalled how disheartening it was to witness the distance between doctors and their patients during his training at Harvard Medical School.

“When I encountered the modern day approach of treatment and doctor-patient interactions in medical school, poetry became important to me to keep my heart open to my patients even though I was being crushed by the medical training. It kept me sane and allowed me to make sense of the absolute suffering I heard from my patients,” Campo said.

Campo feels that the Western emphasis on the distancing between patient and physician has come from the expansion of technology in the medical field. Personal contact is no longer a requirement, as long as a quick-fix, physical solution can be achieved. More problematically, because of this phenomenon, physicians are not even trying to emotionally invest themselves in patients’ care, which explains why patients so often feel silenced and ignored.

Campo sees a need to return to the holistic view of medicine by resuscitating the physician’s role as healer, rather than merely curer of physical illness.

“The distinction between a physician and a healer is really an important one that we often fail to make. Patients whom I have cared for feel healed even though they ultimately are succumbing to a disease that we don’t yet have a cure for. It becomes incredibly vital for someone to be able to have the possibility of being healed even in the face of failing the cure,” Campo said.

For Campo, poetry is not only at the disposal of the physician – it can also be prescribed to the patient as a tool for self-healing. He has encouraged patients living with HIV/AIDS to express their personal struggles with the disease, demonstrating the mutual benefits of poetry in reviving the doctor-patient relationship.

“HIV is a particularly difficult illness in that it engenders so many silences and stigmas. What I find so useful in caring for these patients is [the formation of] a writing group where patients share poetry, prose narratives, or journals,” he says.

“We talk about their poetry and articulating aspects of living with HIV in a way that is not accessible in the confines of a clinic encounter.”

More than just a personal catharsis, Campo also argues that poetic expression is a way for whole families to cope with illness.

“When a patient goes to a page and leaves something written for their loved ones, there is a way that they persist in this world, [and] that challenges the notion of a cure,” he says.

Campo’s ultimate philosophy – that all patients should be offered relief, even when there is no cure – is a testament to his commitment to promoting the overall well-being of the patient, as well as the importance of the doctor-patient bond.