Emory Report

April 6, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 27


Cardiologist strains to hear
voice of patients and Muse

Shortly after John Stone came to Atlanta, he was leaving Grady Hospital one afternoon and found himself driving on Ponce de Leon Avenue-"Oh, you mean Pahhnce de Lee-on," a friendly resident corrected after Stone asked directions-when a few lines of verse appeared in his head.

Rather than risk losing the words to oblivion, Stone acted. He stopped his car in the right lane on Ponce, searched for a scrap of paper and a pen, and began to scribble down the lines as rush-hour drivers cursed, honked their horns and went around him. With apologies to the city's motorists that day, the move paid off-the poem, "To a Fourteen-Year-Old Girl in Labor and Delivery," appeared in Stone's first book of poetry, The Smell of Matches.

More than 30 years later, John Stone, cardiologist, poet, director of admissions for the Emory medical school, has blended the worlds of medicine and literature as seamlessly as he's matched meter and rhyme. He's published three books of poetry, co-edited the anthology On Doctoring and written a book of essays on his work as a physician, In the Country of Hearts. He's three times been selected Best Clinical Professor at the School of Medicine and in 1990 received the University Scholar/ Teacher Award.

But though Stone's office on the third floor of the Health Sciences Administration Building affords a pleasant view of the grassy embankment sloping down toward the train tracks, one would never guess its occupant is one of the most respected voices in the country on the humanity of medicine. For someone who's succeeded so thoroughly in two fields as disparate as Stone's, one question leaps to mind: How?

"Well, I think the poetry came first," said Stone after setting down on his desk the galley proofs for his fourth book of poetry, Where Water Begins, due out this fall from LSU Press. "It came first chronologically, and who knows whether it came first genetically. I edited the high school literary magazine, and I also memorized soliloquies from Shakespeare. In that exercise, I found out that I'm a ham."

Growing up in Mississippi, Stone also had been fascinated by medicine all his life because his grandfather was a general practitioner. But it was the tragic death of his father from a heart attack at 45 that cemented Stone's determination to become a physician.

As different as the two vocations appear, they share a common bond of compassion for Stone. Some of his fondest memories center around storytelling, and as a physician he is privy to patients telling their most important stories. "Listening to patients is the beginning of a long short story called life. In very few other professions does one have the privilege to sit and listen to another human being talk about their life," he said. "It's an amazing kind of experience."

And it is one that managed care is threatening to slowly wrench away from the country's doctors as they are afforded less and less time to spend with patients. Still, Stone remains confident the profession will overcome the threats of the moment. "The problem right now is that we've had economists defining what the medical care experience will be," he said. "But whatever they do to medicine, they can't really mess it up."

In his dual role in the medical school, Stone has the opportunity to help instill this compassion in future physicians. He's also taught poetry and the history of literature and medicine in Emory College, and he's spent several summers in England teaching in Emory's Oxford Summer Studies program.

It's been a few years since Stone taught a class on campus, but he does give regular readings in Atlanta and around the country-"I figured out for this piece I wrote that I've read in 35 states, and it just amazes me to have given poetry readings in 35 states." Last fall he and Emory pianist-in-residence Will Ransom collaborated for a very special performance titled "The Poet and the Pianist," in which the two men engaged in an artistic crossfire of verse and music. "We made a decision to make it a sort of seamless presentation, not interrupted by applause," Stone said. "So I read, then he went directly to the piano, and as he finished I got directly up and read another piece. That turns out to have been a very dramatic way to do it."

Ransom and Stone will repeat the performance this fall at Oxford College, but in the meantime they will team up with Ransom's wife Keiko for the annual reading of Peter and the Wolf at the Carlos Museum April 11 at 11 a.m.

Finding time in Stone's busy schedule for readings isn't easy, but that is one reason he chose poetry as his preferred form of writing, because "it lends itself to be written in these little crevices of time." He carries around with him index cards for those random moments of time when the Muse calls, whether they be just before falling asleep, when he has no choice but to pull himself out of a nice warm bed to write, or while driving down Ponce during rush hour.

-Michael Terrazas

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