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The Examined Life:

Writing, Humanities and the Art of Medicine

Mary Helms
McGoogan Library of Medicine
Omaha, Nebraska

Examined Life Conference LogoI was fortunate to receive a 2012 NN/LM MCR Professional Development award to attend the Examined Life: Writing, Humanities and the Art of Medicine conference April 17 – 21 at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine. This conference is attended by a variety of people interested in incorporating health science education and practice through the written word or other media.

I first learned about this conference through my participation in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s campus workshop the “Seven  Doctor’s Project,” an eight-week immersion course in Spring 2012 on learning about writing poetry, narrative fiction, or nonfiction. As a self-professed “non-writer,” I was intrigued in discovering if I could write! Discovering that writing poetry was something that I really enjoyed, through this workshop, I decided to attend The Examined Life conference.

This conference was fabulous! I participated in an all-day poetry writing workshop on April 18th, spending the day with a writing mentor and four other students; a retired nurse, an ENT surgeon, and an HR specialist. We spent the day doing writing exercises, creating “found” poems, reading our own work, and critiquing each other’s work. It was a day well spent with the end product a completed poem.

The actual conference was Thursday through Saturday with concurrent sessions during the day, a public poetry reading at the Prairie Lights Book store on Thursday evening, and a reading by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine ( at the University of Iowa main library on Friday night.

I attended several panel discussions:

  • residents writing about their medical rotations;
  • creative writing in the clinical context;
  • alternative publication formulas (one of the speakers was Terry Wahls, an internationally known physician and researcher ( );
  • writing in the professional curriculum in nursing and medical schools;
  • humanities and nursing education;
  • on University of Iowa medicine students and the humanities track;
  • the role of the arts and humanities in medical education;
  • and developing a course combining art and medical students.

I also enjoyed the feature presentation by David Watts, M.D. on what literature can do for medicine and how stories and poems should become a meaningful part of medical education.

I was able to meet like-minded people from all over the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Italy. Everyone believed that the Humanities is an important part of health sciences education. The conference was a great opportunity to learn that I am not alone in my thinking that the humanities should be a part of medical education and especially that putting words to paper (yes, I start with pen and paper), even if they are random thoughts or phrases is an exercise I should do every day. The Examined Life also gave me the confidence to read several of my poems in a very public event to complete strangers – not just in the safe environment of a campus workshop. It also provided the confidence to participate in another public poetry reading for the Omaha Writer’s Collective in May.

I want to thank the NN/LM MidContinental Region for the opportunity to attend The Examined Life. I think I am a more confident writer and even if I don’t actually put any ink to paper every day, I do think about writing all the time! I hope to be able to work the 2013 conference into my travel plans for next year.

Here is one of the poems written for the Seven Doctors Project, refined during the conference, then presented at the public reading during the conference.

Project X

©Mary E. Helms 3/13/12

Men in comfortable shoes make their way

Power on power up machines with dials glow

Lights bright overhead flash on stainless steel

Controlled words spoken single gestures waved

Men in comfortable shoes looking down

Objects in focus calculations made

All data entered press return file saved

Discovery made problem solved switch off

Men in comfortable shoes make their way

Men in comfortable shoes end their day.

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