Medical Student’s Poetry Gives Voice to ALS Patients

Brittany File’s scholarly inquiry track in the humanities program provided emotional insights into a ‘ruthless disease.’

Brittany File, a second-year student at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, has a unique approach to connecting with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patients and letting the outside world know how it feels to be by their side as they experience a life-altering diagnosis and its aftermath.

File is originally from Carmel, Calif. She studied undergrad at Emory University in Atlanta—where she also excelled on the softball field—and was drawn to Philadelphia in part because her father went to Jefferson Medical College.

Though nobody in her family, or friend network, suffers from ALS, she embarked late last year on an ailment-related project as part of her scholarly inquiry track in the humanities program.

A required component of SKMC’s curriculum, this unique experience benefits students with enhanced learning experiences and longitudinal mentorship. (For hers, File chose an independent research project in medical humanities. Other tracks available are clinical and translational research, design, digital health, health policies and systems, medical education and population health research.)

Brittany File at ALS Center Open House
Student Brittany File meets a patient at January's open house at the Jefferson Weinberg ALS Center.

With the support of Dr. Piera Pasinelli and others in the Jefferson Weinberg ALS Center, she interviewed some 20 patients about their post-diagnosis experience. File then took those notes and memories and turned them into poems.

On Jan. 30, those poems were distributed throughout the ALS Center, to patients and staff, at an open house there. (That garnered attention from the Philadelphia Inquirer which, in turn, shared the story widely.)

Brittany wrote 20 poems in all, written with the help of the center and school. She initially planned to print 250 copies of the collection. The demand could soon outweigh that supply, though.

She notes that “everybody’s heard a little about” ALS, a “ruthless disease.” Efforts like the Ice Bucket Challenge helped bolster awareness. (Tragically, one of the men who inspired that challenge, Pete Frates, recently lost his battle with ALS).

Early in her academic medical school journey, File was in a laboratory, with a microscope being her vantage point into studying the disease. There, she felt the need to help “push research forward” and reached out to a former clinic director, seeking permission to come in and talk to patients.

It’s unique when we get to talk to patients, to hear how it really impacts them, and for them to be heard like this. —Brittany File

File chose poetry as the writing style because that’s how she’d personally written in the past.

She didn’t go into the rooms until someone else went in, asking whether the patients would like to talk to her. If they agreed—and most did—she always opened with an ice-breaking, comfortable question along the lines of “What makes you smile?”

“Then, we got into what the initial diagnosis was like,” says File, noting that there’s no standard diagnostic test for ALS as with most other illnesses, so “it can take years before they realize that they have it.”

Discussions often centered on the things from which patients suffer and the hope for researchers to break through.

Brittany File poems
Brittany File's poetry collection features 20 stories with words interspersed from medical professionals.

“Working with patients who are suffering also impacts those who care for them,” she says, hearkening back to a poignant moment from the poetic journey.

“There was one time when I was talking to somebody in the clinic who’d been recently diagnosed. Processing something like this takes a lot of time,” File recalls. “It was very emotional in the room. It was hard to give space for conversation with so many people coming in and out of the room. (The patient) said, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this.’”

It was that moment—when File knew she had to be strong for the patient—which put an indelible mark on the worthiness of this pursuit.

, , ,
Health, Life at Jefferson