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Science and stanzas: IU researcher honors life’s little moments in poetry

Chandy John Patient

You may not expect a poetry reading at a meeting full of scientists, but that’s what happened at this year’s annual American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) conference.

There, Indiana University School of Medicine’s Chandy John, MD, delivered an address that did more than recap the accomplishments of his tenure as the organization’s president. He shared a collection of poems that he authored, encouraging his colleagues to appreciate the incremental steps it takes to change the world—if even for just one person.

John is a global health researcher and clinician who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases and tropical medicine. His research focuses on malaria and its developmental impact on children–especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, he has published the 10 poems that were part of his annual address in a book titled “Something Small That Matters.” Proceeds from its purchase will give access to professional development opportunities for trainees in the form of travel awards from the ASTMH.

For John, the arts and science go hand-in-hand, lending an opportunity to honor the small moments in life that really matter.

What inspires you to write?

When I’m thinking about something that affected me deeply, I’m often driven to write about it. I also sometimes write when a moment strikes me as particularly vivid or worth putting down for later memory. And I do write to celebrate things I love—family, nature, words, friends.

When did you start writing poetry—do you have a favorite poet?

An image of a poem by Chandy John, MD.

“Let us not speak tonight of eternity,” by Chandy John, MD. Click to enlarge.

I started writing poetry in college. I had written some poems earlier, but I wrote a few poems for a writing class and discovered I liked it. If I was forced to pick a favorite poet, it would probably be Gerard Manley Hopkins. “The Windhover,” “Pied Beauty” and “Spring and Fall” are poems that keep me coming back to read and savor and love them again.

I follow Adrian Matejka, poet laureate of Indiana, on Twitter, and through one of his recent tweets I discovered Jack Gilbert. Gilbert’s book, “The Great Fires” has incredible, indelible lines. And Matejka’s own poetry is marvelous. Finally, I’ve always loved the work of Mary Oliver. I love many others—but those are a few to start.

You are a physician and scientist in global health—how does poetry serve or impact these roles?

An image of a poem by Chandy John, MD.

“We save a life, but then…” by Chandy John, MD. Click to enlarge.

I think poetry and science are wonderfully compatible. There are some incredible things one learns when doing science, and poetry can often convey the sense of wonder and mystery in science (and frustration and the slog of it particularly well, too). Medicine is deeply personal. As a doctor, you have a profound bond with your patients and see intimate parts of their life that no one else does. So that can open you up to new ways of understanding people, which in turn can give rise to thinking about people’s lives in a poetic way.

Because not every patient does well, there is also a lot of pain in medicine, and poetry has helped me to mediate some of that. Somehow putting the feelings into words helps make the terrible moments feel less senseless and awful.

Tell me about the title of your book—what does “something small that mattersmean to you?

An image of a poem by Chandy John, MD.

“The small things” by Chandy John, MD. Click to enlarge.

The address I gave as ASTMH president focused on celebrating with the small things we do every day—kissing a loved one, listening to a child, encouraging a student, successfully completing an experiment, making the right diagnosis with a patient—because they do matter. In research, it’s easy to feel insignificant at times when considering the great accomplishments of one’s colleagues or mentors. Everyone seems to be doing much better work than you. But much of science and medicine is moved forward by incremental changes: one study following another, showing something that eventually leads to a change in understanding or practice.

It’s great to aim big, and I aim big myself and encourage my students, residents and fellows to do so as well. But not all of us are going to make a huge splash with our work. So as we’re working toward those big goals, we can still do small things every day that matter. And those small things do matter so much. One of the poems, titled “The small things,” talks about a small gesture my mother made as she was going to work. It still resonates with me today.

I also talked in the address about my mentors in medicine and science. They may not remember the time they took me aside to teach me a fine point on a physical exam, or consoled, encouraged and guided me when I was weighed down by strange results that I couldn’t understand—but I do remember, still.

And these small things mattered a lot to me, and taught me that we can do things every day that matter, even as we aim for that great study that is going to change medicine. We may never make it to that goal, but we can do the small things, and if they’re done right, they do matter a great deal.

Proceeds from the book go to ASTMH—why is this a cause that matters you?

ASTMH has been my professional home since I started my pediatric infectious diseases fellowship in 1995. The members of that society inspire me. They are great people doing great work that improves the health and lives of those who have the least. They care deeply about the underserved populations in the tropics who suffer from diseases like malaria, dengue and schistosomiasis. They strongly supported trainees, who are the future of our work. And they are just flat out fun to be with.

In every respect, this is a group that is doing good for the world—and that is a group I want to keep supporting, so that ASTMH can keep making the world better. I helped start a fund for travel awards for trainees, and the proceeds will specifically go to that effort, because our trainees are our future, and I want to be sure that we support them strongly.

Chandy C. John, MD, is the Ryan White Professor of Pediatrics and chief of the Department of Pediatrics Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Health. He is the director of the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Disease and oversees the Infectious Diseases and Global Health research group at the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research.

“Something Small That Matters” is available for purchase through Amazon. Excerpts published in this story were provided with permission and courtesy from the author.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author

Sara Buckallew

Communications Coordinator

Sara Buckallew works in the Dean's Office of Strategic Communications. As a communications coordinator, Sara supports internal and external communication needs for the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research and the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic...