Philip Cawkwell

"The Dinosaur Exhibit"
Winner of the Daniel Liebowitz Prize for Student Writing, 2015 Philip Cawkwell

What inspired you to frame an encounter with a patient in this way, using descriptions of a museum exhibit?

I wrote this poem very early on in my clinical training at Bellevue Hospital. The first few semesters of medical school are so abstract; you are primarily dealing with textbooks and theoretical ideas about how best to care for a patient. Everything changes when you are assigned to your first patient. Everything is new, exciting, and very tangible. And yet as a student you don’t have the full toolkit to care for the patients. You rely on a guide, a resident or attending physician, who shows you the ropes. This reminded me of a first trip through a museum where I have to rely heavily on placards and signs to understand the intricacies of what I’m looking at.

There is so much teaching that goes on in the hospital in order to train the next crop of physicians, so if you aren’t careful it can be easy to forget that the primary role of the hospital is not training. This piece is a reminder that rather than insulate yourself from the sometimes gory realities of medical care, the most rewarding thing to do is humanize your patients and embrace the brief moment you have in their lives.

How does being a medical student affect the way you approach writing?

One of the greatest rewards of being a medical student is having much more time with my patients than the residents and attending physicians (because they carry a much larger patient load). This means I have the opportunity to learn the patient’s life story – and not just their medical one. This provides me with a wealth of material with which to draw from. At the same time, these stories are always so personal and so moving that it becomes incredibly important to me to make sure I get the writing just right. I feel indebted to these individuals who let me into their life and I want to be careful about how I broadcast their voices.

What do you find most challenging, both as a writer and a student?

It can be incredibly difficult to find the time and energy to balance both of these pursuits. Part of the problem is my perfectionist tendencies to want to capture things in the best way. This can be an issue both as a medical student and writer. I find the most rewarding part of writing to be in the early conceptual stages as I think about the stories I have heard and deciding how I want to craft them into a piece. It can take an agonizingly long time for me to get from that early stage to a point where I am satisfied with my own writing, even if only a few words have changed from beginning to end.

Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?

Writers who have profoundly influenced me include Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Some of the medical writers whose work I can’t put down include Dr. Paul Offit, Dr. David Oshinsky, and Dr. Oliver Sacks. I am currently reading Gary Shteyngart’s autobiography Little Failure and eagerly awaiting the arrival of an English translation of Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Ignorance in a few months.