Voices of HMSOM: The Poet as Doctor, the Doctor as Poet
January 12, 2022
The clinical research technician saw things in the Level I Trauma department: casualties from car accidents, terrible wounds, gunshot victims who were mere children, blood. Throughout, she had a job to do: she collected blood samples in the hectic, fast-paced environment; she helped the medical residents and research coordinators with data collection and enrollment in a clinical study of a drug intended to help clots hold, slow the flow, maybe save lives.
These were, in essence, “bleeding experiments.”
The student, Maya Sorini, now a first-year student at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, was forever changed by what she had witnessed in these “experiments” - so much so that it is the title of her collection of poems, three of which will be publishing imminently in the journal Tofu Ink Arts Press in February, and one of which is already in the latest issue of Snapdragon.
Her verse in “Bleeding Experiments” takes a long look at the visceral reality of medicine, from a doctor-in-training who has already seen much.
“These poems are about me,” said Sorini. “I started writing poetry, doing this craft, because I needed to. I had to have the stories come out - so I could sleep.”
So while “The Body Only Speaks Her Own Language” reports graphically of the damage wrought by a lead bullet - so utterly foreign an entity to the delicate biology of a human being - she also caps the poem with the lines:
These days I am poring over dictionaries, Bleeding into google translate, trying to find an interpreterSo that when she uses words I don’t understand, something can help me put together More sentences. I need to get this much across: Dear body, be brave.
“Maya Sorini is the kind of person who will make a great doctor: a thoughtful person who reflects on patients and life itself - and not just a prognosis,” said Bonita Stanton, M.D., the founding dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “These are the kinds of doctors of the future who will bring medicine into the 21st century.”
POEMS OF A LIFE
Sorini, though always somewhat of a writer, is really an “artistic scientist” at her core. She is a chemist who happened to turn her personal pain into poetry.
“Chemistry is the way I contextualize the world, in a granular way,” she said.
Those poems, with an attention to detail down to a syllable the equivalent of a molecule, tell her story, as they do for writers who have honed their craft.
“Psalm for My Body” is another poem which incorporates her own experience and history. The poem meditates on inherited illness via DNA - that the speaker was not “constructed/With a level in hand” - but it is more than that, too. In just a few short lines, it also conjures the vitality of faith; a faith in self but also a faith she had as a Presbyterian growing up in Maryland, as well as what she owes to her antecedents, the “The women who split their bodies to get to me.”
Even more personal are “Bone Seam Song” and “Bone Seam Song 2.” The former speaks of eating bones, and alludes to her grandfather who grew up in hunger and poverty in fascist Italy; the second captures the moment of spending time with friends during a strange heavy rainstorm in a dry part of California. Together, the poems’ 12 lines apiece are structured visually, almost like an E.E. Cummings poem, to resemble a top-down X-ray of a rib cage. Characteristically, the poet has tactically cracked the 11th and 12th lines, or “ribs,” like Sorini had herself done amid a serious car crash while in college at Washington University in St. Louis.
She is largely self-taught, since her academics focused on science and chemistry through her undergraduate years. Thus, she is inspired by other poets who work jobs to make others well, including Stacy Nigliazzo, an emergency department nurse from Texas whose poetry is widely acclaimed.
Other inspirations include Richard Siken, an award-winning poet currently based in Arizona; and Sarah Kay, a poet who rose to prominence over the last decade primarily as a spoken-word performer.
Sorini did meld her artistic and scientific sides, via an Ivy League degree. She took her flair for the literary to Columbia University, where she earned her M.S. in “Narrative Medicine” - a way of telling stories about health and wellness.
Even now, she leads narrative medicine workshops in which practitioners are prompted to come up with stories and think creatively about the humanistic experience of caring for others in a clinical setting.
“What if we brought back art and tenderness and love to clinical care?” she said. “We owe it to each other to radically love each other. That’s the magic in poetry, and in medicine.”
“I’m not the most traditional medical school candidate - but Hackensack told me, ‘You’re going to be a good doctor,’” Sorini recalled. “Hackensack chose me.”
The non-traditional path that brought her here: a happy childhood in Rockville, Md., as one of four children of a lawyer and a homemaker. She went to the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, where she drafted a novel and worked part-time for the U.S. Department of Defense. It was a place that “never tried to clip (her) wings,” as she recalled fondly.
Her undergraduate years at Washington University in St. Louis was more of a challenge - especially since she had the aforementioned car crash, and a fall off a horse which has left her with intermittent pain ever since.
That pain, of course, informs “Bleeding Experiments.” A major motif of the collection’s poems is a pain-rating scale.
As she works through her first year of medical school, she continues to write - sometimes poetry, sometimes prose.
Sorini currently lives with her grandmother in a home in Northern New Jersey, where she is an avid cook. Her plans for the future: to perfect her art and her science, line by line, observation by observation.
“I’m going into medicine partly to understand myself,” she said. “Poetry is its own language - and so is medicine.”