Physician's poem gets AMA nod for publication


Dr. Scott Williams turns to verse to deal with stresses

After a stressful day at his Huntsville medical practice, Dr. Scott Williams heads home and writes poetry.

After years of penning verse mostly for himself, the 40-year-old family physician will soon have a national audience. The Journal of the American Medical Association, read by some 900,000 U.S. doctors, is set to publish one of Williams’ poems in its July 16 issue.

Williams wasn’t optimistic when he submitted the poem in February for publication on the journal’s “Poetry and Medicine” page.

“But, lo and behold, they liked it,” he said Thursday. “It’s kind of lit the fire under me” to continue writing.

The short poem’s title, “TMJ,” refers to temporomandibular joint disorder, a painful jaw condition. But it’s really about miscommunication, Williams said. (Because of a confidentiality agreement, The Times cannot publish the poem until it appears in the journal.)

Williams said another poem, “Heart Defect,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

A Decatur native, Williams attended Clemson University on a wrestling scholarship in the early 1990s. He said he was exposed to poetry while minoring in English and was immediately smitten.

“The more I read, the more it just seemed to me to be such an elegant form of expression,” Williams said. “I like the fact that, in poetry, you withhold excess words, and that allows readers to kind of interject their own personal experiences into the piece.”

Not surprisingly, most of Williams’ poems are about the subject he knows best: being a doctor. He estimates he’s completed 50 short-form poems.

“For me, it’s a way of wrestling with the frustrations that occur in medicine: the difficult diagnoses, the difficult patients,; the incurable diseases,” Williams said. “This person who you have a long-term relationship with comes in, and you’ve got to tell them they have cancer. You can’t help but be emotionally drawn into that, but at the same time your obligation to the patient is to remain objective.

“To me, poetry is a way to cross back and forth on that line without blurring it.”

Williams’ busy medical practice – he has about 5,000 patients – gives him plenty of material. He said he tries to write two or three nights a week. His biggest influence is the late poet-doctor William Carlos Williams (no relation), whose simple verse focused on the lives of common people.

Although he won several college poetry contests, Williams said it took his wife, Kelli, to convince him he was talented enough to be in print. The couple have 7-year-old fraternal twins, Cole and Caitlin.

“I have no doubt that I’ll continue to write, and if I see a poem that’s really powerful to me, I may submit it for publication,” Williams said. “But at the same time, it’s never been about the publication. It’s about dealing with the stresses of being a physician.”

© 2008 The Huntsville Times. All rights reserved.

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