At the intersection of pharmacy and poetry


One of my favorite quotes is by the French writer, Hervé Guibert. He said, “I am, as always in writing, both the scientist and the rat slit open for his research.” As both a scientist and a writer myself, I live this contradiction on a daily basis. I used to look to science for empiricism, facts, and guidelines, and to poetry for emotional truth and art. Yet the more deeply I venture into my professional life in pharmacy and in poetry, the more I find myself applying theory to poetry and appreciating the art of healing. 


Drawing blood

There is a darker side to Guibert’s quote: the implication that the writer must turn the scalpel on herself and that good writing demands blood. I have lived this truth throughout my time in pharmacy school while writing the poems that were published in my first book, Emergency Brake. 

Being able to say “my first book” is still a surreal experience; for the longest time, I was afraid there would not be a first book, or any book. I was not convinced that I could successfully pursue careers in both the health sciences and the humanities, and that my seemingly disparate passions could coexist without antagonizing each other. 

An unexpected synergy

Yet, my experiences as a student pharmacist have proven that there is synergy in leading both a literary life and a scientific one, and that this synergy makes me both a better poet and a better clinician. At the core of both pharmacy and poetry is empathy. When you read or listen to poetry, you inhabit the mind-space of the speaker. Similarly, when you practice pharmacy, you must understand and appreciate the challenges faced by your patients, both physical and emotional. 

I no longer see pharmacy and poetry as competitive forces, because they are not. Their objectives are the same: to heal, educate, and empower. I suspect that this is true not only for poetry but for many (if not most) forms of art, whether it is photography, music composition, filmmaking, or performance art. 

When I got the phone call that my book had been selected for the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series—a national poetry prize—and was going to be published, I was at an ambulatory care clinic, where I was interviewing patients as part of a clinical study. It felt poetic that this incredible news should come while I was practicing my other profession, since pharmacy and writing have become inextricably bound in my life.

I encourage my fellow student pharmacist artists to keep their relationships with their art alive. You will be a better pharmacist for it, or at the very least, a more interesting one. 


I leave you with a poem I wrote in early 2015, when my grandfather was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. I used to stare blankly when people asked me if I write “pharmacy poems.” Now, I proudly say that yes, I do. Here is one of them, titled Propofol, from my book, Emergency Brake, published in 2016 by Tavern Books. 

My kidneys are leaning into the wall of my back 
like a pair of boxing gloves, 
the way my grandfather is leaning 
into the idea of an operating table, 
a paralytic agent, his body 
a space station for someone else’s hands. 
I work in the hospital where it will happen. 
I work and wait for the part 
where the lungs I keep wanting this month to be
stop huffing propane, stop threatening
to make like my patient’s vein
and collapse. Inside 
the sterile compounding room, 
I shoot drugs
down an IV bag’s gut. I listen 
to the outer-space hum of machines
that eat the air out of the room. 
There is nothing sexy 
about incision. 
There is nothing about the phrase 
nasogastric tube
that makes me want to look 
both ways before crossing the street. 
I want to hold him 
like he is something other 
than a mucus membrane.
Like maybe the planet inside him is Pluto, 
like it’s not really a planet at all. 

(Copyright © 2016 by Ruth Madievsky. Used by permission of Tavern Books. All rights reserved.)