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How one doctor's love for poetry helps him communicate with patients better


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: We continue now our look at the alchemy of health and art, with Jeffrey Brown's profile of a physician-poet, or perhaps a poet-physician.

It's all part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Dr. Fady Joudah: I haven't seen you in a while.

Woman: I know.

Jeffrey Brown: Morning rounds at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in Houston, where Dr. Fady Joudah practices internal medicine.

Fady Joudah: How was the pain? And you're breathing better?

Woman: I'm breathing better.

Fady Joudah: Well, I have got good news...

Woman: OK.

Fady Joudah: ... which is, your kidneys are doing much better.

Jeffrey Brown: In a time of pandemic, the hospital itself is eerily quiet, doctors and nurses likely to be the only people a patient sees.

Fady Joudah: Good morning.

It's a little cruel. There's almost a panic if you fall ill these days, because you feel like you're being sent into solitary confinement, whether from COVID or not. And that really is painful to carry around as a physician and internalize.

Jeffrey Brown: Joudah was born in nearby Austin, but spent most of his youth in the Middle East in Libya and Saudi Arabia, the child of Palestinian refugees. The impulse to healing, he says, stems from a sense of displacement.

Fady Joudah: As a young boy, I remember feeling I needed to become a doctor because the world or my immediate family needed compassion and support.

I remember this moment very well, actually, in the kitchen, we were living at the time in Benghazi, Libya. And I had broken out and said: "Don't worry. When I'm older, I will be a doctor and I will have a big house. We will all live there together. And if anyone falls ill, I will take care of you."


Jeffrey Brown: Later, he would work in emergency rooms and on missions for Doctors Without Borders, and always, alongside medicine, another passion, poetry.

Fady Joudah: "The storm funneled through town with destructive intent, fractured tree limbs, toppled fences, ripped shingles like tufts of hair."

Jeffrey Brown: His first collection was chosen in 2008 for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets by Louise Gluck, the 2020 Nobel Prize winner.

A later volume, "Textu," features short poems the length of texts. His most recent book reaches for the heavens, with allusions to astronomy and even astrological signs, while remaining grounded in the everyday. It's titled "Tethered to Stars."

Fady Joudah: Some of the themes, whether they are about my relationship to being a physician or being a Palestinian-American or bilingual or whatnot, they maybe free themselves into time a little bit more, away from this notion that everything we speak in America has to be, so to speak, on the census form.

Jeffrey Brown: Here, even disasters play out in everyday human terms.

The poem "House of Mercury" describes the aftermath of a recent hurricane that blew through a part of Houston where Joudah's parents live, subtly, in the background, the pandemic.

Fady Joudah: "On the second day, I cut up the rest of the branches, deepened the earth for the fig, enjoyed a long, lazy lunch with my parents, and on the way home heard a radio report on whether the sky is bluer during a pandemic."

This was earlier last year. The highways are empty and the city seemed affected by the pandemic lockdown. It just struck me that, in the end, we cannot escape how beautiful we want to feel life is.

Jeffrey Brown: Joudah and his wife, Hana El Sahly, two children. And the pandemic changed life at home in another way. Hana is an infectious disease doctor and researcher who served as a lead investigator for the Moderna vaccine.

Literally, the whole world is watching and waiting.

Hana El Sahly: Yes, that part is the stressful part, right? Like, sometimes, it felt like, if we can be just left alone, so we can do what we need to do, and then we will figure it out -- figure out how we sort of present it.

So, that was actually part of the challenge, being constantly in a fishbowl, if you will.

Jeffrey Brown: I asked Hana which hat she sees her husband most at home in now, doctor or poet.

Hana El Sahly: Oh, that answer is easy. He is definitely more in his elements when he's reading and writing. He appears more content, more on a mission kind of thing, when he's reading and writing.

Jeffrey Brown: Both partners in this two-doctor household say both science and art, medicine and poetry require an imaginative mind that sees beyond research data or life's routine moments.

And for Fady Joudah, there's an added benefit to loving and caring about language.

Fady Joudah: Being a poet and a writer and hopefully a better listener, I have learned to use a language of faith or hope or support or terseness sometimes to communicate with my patients better.

Jeffrey Brown: "House of Mercury" ends with a lunch at his parents' house.

Fady Joudah: "Hummus, falafel, shakshuka followed by tea and stories about fear that comes to nothing. The kids said it was the best falafel they'd ever had. And mom said that, going forward, her morning glories will get the light they deserve."

Jeffrey Brown: A lesson in what even fallen trees can bring.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Such a great report. Thank you, Jeffrey.

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