Photography by Erin Benner, Angelic Jewel Photography

‘A way to befriend my thoughts’
A future physician discovers the power of poetry to heal

University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) graduate Amarachi Orakwue, ’19 B.S., discovered her love of poetry in the eighth grade. “Our teacher gave us an assignment to write a poem. I remember writing mine,” she says. “I brought it to class and my teacher read it. She was the first person to call me a poet.”

The experience changed the course of Orakwue’s future, inspiring her to pursue a life as both an artist and a health care provider.

At the time of her eighth-grade epiphany, Orakwue had just immigrated to Minnesota from Nigeria with her parents, younger sister, and brother.

“It was pretty chaotic being in a new country, not understanding the culture, feeling isolated and different. Poems were a way for me to understand what was going on and my emotions. It was a way to befriend my thoughts,” she says.

Her family moved often before settling in Rochester. Orakwue completed her senior year at Century High School, where she discovered her love of the sciences, particularly chemistry. She initially thought about a career in pharmacy and enrolled in UMR in 2016 as a member of the inaugural Health CORE (Community of Respect and Empowerment) living learning community. The first group of 30 students came from communities underrepresented in higher education—first-generation; Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); and low-income students.

The poetry connection

Members of the incoming class had a chance to share why they wanted to make a difference in the world through health care at a rigorous scholarship competition.

A supportive audience of scholarship benefactors were present, including Joe and Peggy Marchesani. The Marchesanis had established a scholarship in memory of Joe’s mother, Katherine Guarino Marchesani. The scholarship had a novel requirement: that the recipient be a poet.

“My mother loved poetry, and well past her 100th birthday could recite poems she had learned in grade school,” Joe Marchesani says. “We believe that an appreciation for the arts, such as poetry and music, makes someone trained in the medical sciences a more rounded, sensitive, and empathetic person.”

UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell told Orakwue about the scholarship, and that Joe and Peggy would like to meet her. She brought along a poetry book she had created.

“I showed it to Joe and Peggy. I had all these poems I had been writing for so long. We talked about poetry, ourselves.”

That day, Orakwue received more than the scholarship—she received lifelong friends, mentors, and supporters of her passion for both poetry and health care.

“Peggy and Joe have always encouraged me to publish my poetry,” she says. “Without them I wouldn’t ever consider it. It can be easy for us to not take notice of our own talents. They showed me it can be a powerful gift, and to try to share it with the world.”

While at UMR, Orakwue and some classmates began an annual poetry event for Black History Month. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, she worked with Barbara Jordan, a member of the Rochester NAACP, to hold a vigil. At the vigil, she read her poetry and saw in a new light the power of poetry to uplift community voices.

A new calling

During her time at UMR, Orakwue found her path to medicine. She is currently in her third year at the University of Minnesota Medical School, interested in obstetrics and gynecology.

Orakwue admits it’s challenging to find time for poetry as a medical student. “I have to be intentional about carving out time to write.”

She says writing has helped her process her encounters with patients. She tells of one patient she saw during her internal medicine rotation. Orakwue had spent two weeks caring for the woman before she passed away. In the beginning, “I saw her energy. I saw her vivaciousness. She was a diva and I saw that aspect of her,” she says.

“To see how the disease took its course was very painful. Poetry was a cathartic way for me to express what’s inside me. It was a way for me to mourn the patient and have peace.”

She hopes to have more time to write next year, as she plans to take time off from medical school to participate in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Medical Research Scholars Program. “I want to do epidemiology research in women’s health to better understand the cause of certain conditions that disproportionately affect underserved populations and how best to target them,” she says.

Orakwue says having scholarships is making it possible for her to take part in the year-long NIH program and not feel like she has to hurry through medical school to pay off student loans.

“I can focus on my studies and patient care,” she says. “I can focus on being a better doctor.”

Support students like Amarachi Orakwue through the University of Minnesota Rochester’s student support fund and the U of M Medical School’s future physician scholarship fund.

This story was originally published in the fall 2023 issue of The Kettle

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