by Carole Verona
In her poem, “Card Game,” Margaret H. Hager, M.D., gives us a rare glimpse into the mind, soul and heart of a physician:
It is I who pronounce sentence,
Speak the words of doom,
Break the guarded silence between us
With truth, eyes downcast, gently
Describing cells “gone awry,”
Unable to look him in the eye
And in that moment strangle hope
With the choking word “cancer.”
Swallowing hard, he understands “growth.”
The poem appears in her book published this August, “Farewell, Samsara” ($12.95). Dr. Hager explained that Samsara is the Buddhist concept of the cycle of life: Birth, life, suffering, death and rebirth. “The word ‘farewell’ in the title means you want to get beyond that; you don’t want to have to keep coming back.”
Hager, a retired physician who lives in Roxborough, maintained a solo medical practice there from 1988 to1994 and was lead physician at Roxborough Medical Associates from 1994 to 2008, when she retired from medical practice. She was also on the medical staffs at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, Chestnut Hill Hospital and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Written about her experience with a specific patient, “Card Game” reveals how little a physician can sometimes contribute to the outcome. “The cards were not given by me; I was just the dealer,” she explained. “Patients are there looking me in the eye, and I have to tell them what their fate is. So, it’s hard.”
Named one of the nation’s top doctors by Town and Country magazine in 2000, Hager said, “My own feeling always has been that to be therapeutic with a patient, you have to be able to enter into their pain; you have to be able to actually feel it. You can’t absorb too much, or you won’t be effective, but you can get close enough. What happens when you go home at night after a tragic situation with a patient? It doesn’t just go away. For me, it could turn into a poem.”
The poems that concern medical issues can be dark and sad. “But when I’ve given readings, people say they feel better because my poems validate their feelings,” she said. Not all of Hager’s poems revolve around medical themes. Some have to do with places she’s visited; others are about love and the beauty that is found all around us.
While growing up in Lancaster County, Hager’s love of the written word came from her mother, who “was constantly spouting poetry.” She started writing her own poems when she was 12, shortly after she was diagnosed with scarlet fever. This was followed by the deaths of her grandmother, an uncle and an aunt. She also developed a neurological condition that plagued her for a number of years. “All of these experiences turned me inward, and the poetry started happening,” she said. An English teacher at Penn Hall Preparatory School in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, encouraged her, and eventually Hager became editor of the school’s literary magazine.
When she went to the University of Pennsylvania, a counselor asked what she wanted to major in. When Hager said “medicine,” the counselor discouraged her and said that women were good with languages. So Hager received her bachelor of arts degree in German and literature from Penn in 1966. She then won a scholarship to the Free University Berlin, where she studied playwriting from 1966 to 1967.
But she never lost her interest in medicine. Between 1967 and 1980, she was busy raising two children and also worked as an administrative assistant from 1978 to 1980 at Miquon School. In 1980, she entered the post-baccalaureate, pre-med program at Temple University, and received her medical degree from the Temple University School of Medicine in 1985. She completed an internship and residency at Chestnut Hill Hospital.
Hager never stopped writing or being involved with poetry. During the 1990s, she was the assistant editor of “Hellas,” a journal of poetry and the humanities, and also organized poetry readings at Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores and at The Art Alliance. Although she is retired from medical practice, she still advocates for patients, is a medical expert witness and teaches a course about empathy at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.
Hager believes that the study and practice of medicine has deepened her poetry. “I find inspiration and ideas from something I read or an encounter with someone. Or maybe I had a very deep emotion that I need to get out,” she said. “Sometimes a poem will come to me in the middle of the night. Sometimes just the idea of it, or sometimes the whole thing. I have to get up, have a pen ready and write it down.”
She believes that a writer needs peace and solitude. She meditates for at least 30 minutes a day, sitting quietly in a beautiful spot. “The poem is written in its first form and then goes through so many revisions. I re- and re- and re-write. It’s almost like having a block of stone and carving the poem out of it.”
Dr. Hager will launch the book and read selections on Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Collingswood Book Festival, Collingswood, N.J. The book can also be purchased on Amazon.com. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.