“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” wrote the iconic physician-poet William Carlos Williams.

Williams points out in these lines an intangible power of literature—of all art—to change our world. 

Through artistic expression, we can appeal to emotions, arrive at harder truths, and importantly, we can plant the seeds for change, both within our individual selves and society as a whole.

Indeed, reading literary fiction may significantly improve readers’ empathy, as determined by two separate studies in 2013, one from the Netherlands and another from the New School. The researchers divided study participants into several groups and asked to read a passage of literary fiction, commercial fiction, non-fiction or nothing. Afterwards, they asked the participants to complete several tests to determine their ability to recognize and respond to other people’s emotions. The group that read literary fiction before taking the tests consistently did better.

Here at UCSF, we can harness this power of the (literary) arts to improve our experience as (future) health professionals and as well-rounded human beings. More importantly, we can use these lessons to improve the experiences of the people around us and bridge the gap between providers and patients.

For inspiration (and as an appropriate end to National Poetry Month), we present this year’s Tabula, the annual arts issue of Synapse. Patients reflect on their harrowing experiences with illness. Medical students write about and help restore the humanity of patients who have fallen through the cracks. These pages contain a wealth of such poems, stories, essays and photos by talented members of the UCSF community. Happy empathizing.

Jenny Qi
Executive Editor


a patient's wish by Alice Cabotaje/Spiritual Care Services

From the Bedside by Elieth Martinez/MS1

Waiting for the Novacaine by Phoebe Grigg/UCSF staff

Had the Wind Not Blown - July 11, 2005 by Eileen Brazil/patient

Two Untitled Poems by Terri Mason/UCSF retired

Last Night (On Call) by Rita Glassman/Spiritual Care Services

Wishful Ending by Sarah Paris/UCSF staff

Palmistry by Jenny Qi/BMS3

'Stop Torturing Me' by Ali Saadi/MS4

Winter Lullaby by T. Booth Haley/D4

World Backwards by Antonia Moya/MS4

Nephrostomy (for my aunt) by Phoebe Grigg/UCSF staff

Reflection in the Pysch Mirror by Desire Takawira/MS1