‘I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors’


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The person considered the most prominent physician-poet in the United States will deliver the 2011 James L. Stambaugh Jr., M.D. Lecture in Humanities in Medicine at the University of Louisville. The lecture is sponsored by the Division of Medical Humanism and Ethics of the Department of Family and Geriatric Medicine.

    Jack Coulehan, M.D., of Stony Brook University will present “‘I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors’: Passion, Poetry and Medicine” at noon, Monday, April 18, in room 102 of the UofL School of Medicine’s Instructional Building. Admission is free and lunch will be provided to those who make reservations by noon, Friday, April 15, to darryl.colebank@louisville.edu.

    Coulehan’s lecture is taken from his poem of the same name, depicting a hospitalized patient furious at the medical team because they mistakenly assume he is an alcoholic. The poem is based on an actual experience Coulehan had with a former patient. That patient could not find a way to express his anger and frustration with what he perceived to be the disdainful attitudes of the medical team.

    Coulehan gave him a copy of the poem, which begins:

    Because the rosy condition makes my nose bumpy and big, and I give them the crap they deserve, they write me off as a boozer and snow me with drugs. Like I’m gonna go wild and green bugs are gonna crawl on me and I’m gonna tear out their godd––– precious IV. …

    “It was therapeutic for him,” Coulehan said about the experience in an article in American Medical News. “I’m not a believer in being distant or detached. I’ve always been willing to share my own expressions with [patients] as well as expecting them to share theirs with me.”

    As professor emeritus of the Department of Preventive Medicine and senior fellow at the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook, Coulehan knows the relationship poetry can have with the practice of medicine. “We have certain metaphors of illness in our society – the body as a machine that breaks down, disease as an enemy,” he said. “When you’re dealing with chronic illness, you have to get into the metaphorical system the patient is comfortable with.”

    Poetry can help that process, and the relationship between poetry and medicine dates back to ancient Egypt where sacred words were chanted to promote healing. “Poetry and medicine are closely intertwined. When you go back in history and think about how healing occurred in traditional societies, most healing was (related to) the power of the word,” said Coulehan, who is the author of four collections of poetry. His work also has appeared in both literary magazines and medical journals in the United States, Canada, England and Australia.

    At UofL, integrating poetry and other forms of narrative into the medical curriculum is part of the work of the Division of Medical Humanism and Ethics, headed by David J. Doukas, M.D. “The division explores connections among humanism, ethics and professionalism for students and physicians who serve on the advancing edge of medical science,” he said.

    “We teach health professional students, physicians-in-training and their teachers how to integrate the social and ethical aspects of medicine into everyday patient care. This training enhances both outpatient and inpatient care at all UofL hospital and clinic facilities as well as the facilities where our students go on to practice.”

    Jill Scoggins is Director of Communications at UofL's Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. She has been at UofL since 2010.