Columbia Medical Student Wins International Poetry Prize

Medical student Lauren Fields, winner of a 2020 Hippocrates Prize

Medical student Lauren Fields, winner of a 2020 Hippocrates Prize

Lauren Fields has come a long way since she wrote her first poem in elementary school, almost 22 years ago

“I wrote something kind of silly about animals, but there was something about poetry that I really fell in love with, and I've been writing ever since,” says Fields. 

Now Fields is a medical student in the Class of 2021 at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and an award-winning poet. Her poem, “A Laying on of Hands in the OR,” tied for second place in the health professional category of the 2020 International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry & Medicine.

“The inspiration for the poem actually came from my surgery rotation during my major clinical year,” says Fields. “The difficult cases that we saw really exemplified the trust that patients have in their team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses. There was a coming together that was unique to those particularly stressful situations and that was the spirit behind the poem.”

"A Laying on of Hands in the OR"

Today, it feels like prayer – the pause
for a moment of peace
before the raising of voices.
We bow our heads over an impossibility,

over the bifurcation of life 
and something that is not life.
Today, it feels like a call and response
of masked voices across

a body broken, across
blood. We asked her to believe, to trust 
the work of hands and metal
in this sterile sanctuary, 

where the buzzing of cautery is a hymn,
and a single, drumming heart keeps time.

Fields heard about the Hippocrates Prize thanks to Owen Lewis, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, who teaches the narrative medicine course, "Poetry: Close Reading and Craft," which she took as part of her preclinical coursework. Narrative medicine, a division within Columbia's Department of Medical Humanities & Ethics, helps students deepen their self-awareness, clinical attunement, collaborative skills, and creative capacities. Lewis, a poet and a 2016 winner of the Hippocrates Prize, encouraged Fields to apply for the award. 

“From the first class, Lauren brought a unique and developed voice to her writing,” says Lewis. “Whether writing about medical situations, racial inequities, or other human dilemmas, her poetry reflected deep feeling and thought. I encouraged Lauren to submit both because of the quality of her work and because a potential prize very much helps a young poet take her writing seriously. Having served as a judge for the prize in 2017, I can personally attest to the quality of the competition. Her prize in this international contest, remarkable in itself for a student, marks her as a poet from whom we will hear more.”

According to Fields, “The class was a great opportunity to get feedback and give feedback and be in this dedicated space for poetry in the midst of a very busy schedule.” 

Having a creative identity is important to Fields, who became interested in attending medical school after she graduated from Harvard University with a degree in psychology. For the next three years, she worked full time, first as a research associate at her alma mater and later as a clinical research coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center—all while going to school at night to complete the pre-medical courses needed to apply for medical school.

“My interest in medicine came from a desire to understand the mind and the body because the two are inextricably linked and now that has fed into an interest in both psychiatry and palliative care,” says Fields. 

She found her fit in medical school at Columbia. 

“The main reason why I chose Columbia was because I felt so at home with my classmates during Revisit Day,” says Fields. “It felt like a warm environment and somewhere I would be able to grow in a way that was encouraging and supportive. In addition, having organizations like BALSO, the Black and Latino Student Organization, and all the faculty and staff members in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, has been priceless in terms of having people who understand what this process is like and feeling like you're part of a family.”

Since starting medical school, Fields has served as an orientation leader and as a teaching assistant for the State Pre-College Enrichment Program. She is also among the students working on the medical school’s bias-free curriculum program. 

And, of course, she finds time to write and share her poetry through VP&S Club activities such as Coffeehouse, an open-mic event that showcases the talents of students.

“Students from all the different schools at the medical campus come and perform songs and sometimes dance and poetry,” she says. 

For Fields, nurturing her poetic side and learning medicine provide the most natural path forward.  

“If there's something that you're passionate about, that you love doing that is outside of medicine, please, please, keep pursuing it because you can,” says Fields.