Meredith Rizzo

Within weeks of being diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 years old, Nicole O'Hara of Phoenix, Md., underwent a double mastectomy. She had breast reconstruction during the same operation; then it was on to chemotherapy.

The ordeal left O'Hara with "big, ugly, red inflamed scars and stitches and drains," she says.

"It [was] a battlefield."

When Mexican-American artist Nora Litz first talked with her students about immigration — she was shocked to hear how scared they were.

Sometimes, even professionally compassionate people get tired.

Kristin Laurel, a flight nurse from Waconia, Minn., has worked in trauma units for over two decades. The daily exposure to distressing situations can sometimes result in compassion fatigue.

"Some calls get to you, no matter who you are," she says.

After years working as a nurse in critical care units, Anne Webster found herself lying in the hospital struggling to get well. She had been given the wrong dose of a chemotherapy medication to treat Crohn's disease. The mistake had caused her bone marrow to shut down, and she'd developed pneumonia.

As she lay in the hospital, she thought, "If I live, I'm gonna write about this."

After three weeks, she recovered. And the experience led Webster to write Chemo Brain, a poem about how the drug scrambled her thinking.

According to Audrey Shafer, there is something profound in the moment a patient wakes up from surgery.

She would know — she's an anesthesiologist. She's responsible for people when they are at their most vulnerable: unconscious, unable to breathe on their own or even blink their eyes.

As a result, Shafer says, a kind of intimate trust forms between her and her patients. It's this closeness that moves her to write poetry about medicine.