After 30 years of practicing medicine, Richard Berlin has started a new chapter in his life.
Berlin, a Berkshire-based psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at UMass, Amherst, is considered a veteran to health care, but a relative newcomer to poetry. In the late ‘90s, he completed and published his first collection of works, Code Blue, as a chapbook through the Poetry Society of South Carolina.
And in 2003, Berlin took a step further into the literary world and published his first book of poems, titled How JFK Killed My Father.
The book, like Code Blue, includes several poems examining the medical profession — both Berlin’s personal experiences and his perception of experiences many doctors share.
Further, the book and its title poem – a personal work that refers to Berlin’s father, a leather worker during the time that men wore hats every day, until John F. Kennedy made them unfashionable in the 1960s – have been nominated for several awards since their publish date, including the prestigious Pushcart Prize for poetry.
But Berlin’s reasons for adding ‘poet’ to his resume were not to garner accolades and recognition, but rather to address a very real need within his primary profession of medicine; the need to keep in touch with the science of the job, and the people who rely on a doctor’s expertise to remain well and lead healthy, productive lives.
“There are many ways to humanize the medical practice,” he said, “and poetry is one of them. Most doctors got into the field in the first place to help people; to make a difference and to do some good.
“As we go through our training, we gradually become disconnected from what brought us to the profession,” Berlin continued. “Poetry is a way to bring us back there.”
As a consultation-liaison psychiatrist, a subspecialty involving psychiatric work in non-psychiatric areas, such as intensive care, and with patients with chronic illnesses, Berlin has worked with a myriad of patients during his career, and witnessed the various stages of life, illness, death, and grief firsthand.
He said it was his work that originally began to pull him toward poetry, and also what has fed his muse consistently ever since.
Sometimes raw, always personal, Berlin’s poetry ranges in subject from his own thoughts on practicing medicine to several portraits of patients in various stages of hospitalization.
Berlin added that doctors who double as poets or writers are not as unique as many might think, either.
“There are many doctor poets,” he said, “and there is a specific academic discipline that integrates literature into the medical curriculum at medical schools.”
Referring to the caduceus, the symbol for medicine which represents wisdom and knowledge, Berlin added that creative pursuits as part of a medical curriculum can help to create a better bond between the facts that a physician must learn and the skill he must have in order to implement those skills.
“There has always been a strong sense of tension between wisdom and knowledge in the medical profession,” he said. “As we become more technologically sophisticated in our profession, a disconnect between what we know and our wisdom to apply what we know occurs.”
Berlin said that disconnect can often be described as a medical professional’s loss of empathy for patients; a common danger among health care providers.
“We need to understand the people we work with to best care for them,” he said. “It is so important to form that empathic bond. Creative outlets such as poetry give us more room to reflect, and help us to humanize the medical process.”
Berlin’s theory, like the integration of creative outlets for medical students, is not one that he subscribes to alone. Poetry and other creative prose, artwork, or other pursuits are prevalent within many well-established medical journals, including the JAMA, the Lancet, and the Psychiatric Times, in which Berlin publishes a new poem on a regular basis as a column entitled ‘Poetry of the Times.’ He added that he sees the effect poetry can have on the medical profession as a cathartic tool and also as proof of the unique shared experiences, and ultimately the intimate bond, those health care professionals share.
“I have received the most amazing letters from colleagues who have read my poetry and felt compelled to write me,” he said. “One letter in particular was from a colleague who had a patient, a doctor, come to him with one of my poems and say ‘this is exactly how I feel.’ That’s an enormous reward.”
In order to spread the benefit of poetry that Berlin discovered in his own life, the psychiatrist has instituted a poetry competition at UMass for medical students, which garners a $1,000 prize. He also intends to further integrate poetry and medicine with a new project, which will examine the lives of various poets who have had experiences with mental illness, and how it affected their work.
It’s just one more way to blend poetry, and creativity as a whole, with medicine in order to enhance both the profession and the lives and careers of its professionals.
“The greatest goal is to enhance the relationships between doctors and their patients,” he said. “Anything that makes us better people will make us better doctors. Poetry is one way to do that.”