Ode to a Medical Student and Poet

Aidan Kunju, an award-winning poet and medical student, is aided by poetry during times when “a physician’s only tools are his words.”

A pen writing longhand on a piece of white paper

Writing poetry and practicing medicine may be different disciplines, but they’re not mutually exclusive.

“The creation of poetry requires a way of molding language that isn’t inapplicable to medicine,” said Aidan Kunju, a first-year student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and winner of a 2023 Paul Kalanithi Writing Award from Stanford Medicine for his poem, “Lunch Break, Brave Face.”

Despite years of training and education, he said, there will be times when a physician must break bad news to a patient or their family, “when a physician’s only tools are his words.”

Poetry, said Kunju, “demands a precision that corresponds with the way a physician must be a master detective who reads between the lines and discerns meaning in what isn’t seen.”

Kunju’s award-winning poem isn’t just literary. It’s spatial, too.

Aidan's Kunji's poem, "Lunch Break, Brave Face"

“Lunch Break, Brave Face,” which will be published this summer in Anastomosis, Stanford Medicine’s humanities and literary journal, comprises 15 lines in four stanzas. Each line has a break in the middle, giving the poem a right side and a left side. The poem captures a moment in a day during the pandemic lockdown, when Kunju’s internist mother comes downstairs for lunch after seeing patients on Zoom. She has multiple sclerosis but is carrying on with her work.

While on the surface, it’s a simple poem, “there are a lot of ways it could be read,” said Kunju. “The left side is about my mom and the right side is how I feel.”

A second way to read the poem, he said, is to see the left side as being on the outside looking in, “not knowing anything about someone with an illness. Medicine is based on science but deeply rooted in subjectivity and personal experience. That’s a theme that comes through in the poem.”

A “Science and English Nerd”

Growing up in Texas and California, the child of Indian immigrants, Kunju enjoyed all forms of creative expression. Besides writing, he also paints.

“I feel like people who go into medicine are stereotyped as logical and methodical—classic math and science nerds,” he said. “But I was a science and English nerd. I like being creative. I like being able to put words together in unique ways.”

Medical student Aidan Kinju standing in front of a poster presentation
Aidan Kunju sees poetry and medicine based in love and curiosity.

As a biology major at Nova Southeastern University, Kunju minored in medical humanities and psychology. In his humanities classes, he said, he learned how literature and art help physicians see the gray areas in the patient experience.

“A physician’s job is to have respect for the patient’s autonomy and, when you interact with people from different walks of life, the arts and literature are a bridge, a way of not just knowing but feeling,” Kunji said. “You don’t just see someone’s experience but empathize and feel it, as well.”

Growing up with a physician in the family introduced Kunju to the significance rolesa doctors play in the lives of their patients.

“You see your mom come home during the holidays with cards from her patients and little gifts from their gardens,” Kunji said, “and you say, ‘Wow.’”

As he got older, he came to better understand the patient perspective and what it meant to have an illness. Poetry, according to Kunju, is a medium that lends itself to saying a lot with very little.

“Dealing with the illness of a family member has a lot of powerful emotions associated with it,” he said. “It can be overwhelming and poetry is a way to get the highlights and emphasize what you want to say, to get a clear message across.”

Kunju’s mother is doing well with her treatments for multiple sclerosis.

“I admire her,” Kunji said, “because she takes a very proactive approach to her health.”

She also appreciates her son’s creative work and enjoyed the award-winning poem.

“I didn’t show it to her when I was writing it,” Kunji said, “but I showed it to her before I submitted it for the award.”  

Kunju draws inspiration from something the poet Mary Oliver wrote in an essay: “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.”

That philosophy guides Kunju as he structures his life.

“It’s a relevant quote for people who study and practice medicine,” he said. “After all, what is medicine but loving and asking questions?”

Tags: medical education, medical students