Colorful Notes and an Eye for Detail

How Christina Crumpecker Bridges Writing and Medicine


By Dan Meyers

crumpecker-mugMaybe it all began with Whiskers, the Seal of Iceland. Not familiar with Christina Crumpecker’s first "publication," complete with illustrations, cover and pretend library check-out card?

That was third grade. Today, she’s the one taking copious notes during rounds as a fourth-year medical student at CU. She’s writing down medical data … and literary ideas. She won second place in a national poetry contest for medical students. She also won CU’s Melissa Adams Memorial Award in Medicine and the Humanities for her essay, "Little Things." It’s about a patient who, without explanation, gives her a piece of glass smoothed by the sea. Here’s a sample:

"You don’t know it, won’t believe it yet, but you will come to collect and carry treasures of your own, an odd mix of river stones and hurts, worries and braided wheatgrass to fill your heart and pockets. Joys and pawprints and scraps and yarn."

She’s good.

Crumpecker, 36, embodies that embrace of the arts and medicine, fostered at the School of Medicine through courses, lectures and the journal, The Human Touch.

"She is the warmest most empathetic person I ever met," says her friend and fellow med student Chris Galton. "Her smile makes me forgot most of the ills of the world."

Crumpecker grew up in Kansas City, Mo., with a lawyer father, an art teacher mother and a younger sister. She says she started writing "at about the time I could hold a pencil."

Her first literary work, in kindergarten, was titled "I Lick My Dog." Actually she liked her Shetland sheep dog, Wookie, and had a teacher who saw the humor in a child’s error.

She was introverted as a girl, living in a world of imagination.

"The books I loved were The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden," she remembers. "You know, if I just look around long enough I will find the entrance to the secret world I’m supposed to be in."

In third grade, the girl from the Midwest became fixated on aquatic mammals. Her mother taped lined paper behind plain paper so Christina could write her story about Whiskers the seal in neat, straight rows. The teacher put a cover on it and tucked a library card into the inside jacket.

whiskers-the-end"It was the most thrilling thing. That was a real book if you could check it out of library," Crumpecker says.

Crumpecker majored in English and writing at Colorado College. Romance took her to Durango in 1996, where she planned to teach English. To meet more people, she became an emergency medical technician and then a volunteer firefighter.

Although Crumpecker kept writing, she was drawn to the healthcare side of her life. Maybe that was the magic world she was supposed to be in. She moved to Denver to become a paramedic. She loved the hands-on stuff, "being able to fix things." There was an odd intimacy to the job.

"You have two people who are total strangers, yet you’re instantly in one of the most intense experiences you could have. There’s nothing quite like it."

Eventually she applied to medical school and came to CU. Three of her paramedic pals did the same, including Chris Galton.

Galton says that in medical school, and before, Crumpecker was a big note taker: "Meticulous. And she’s like a kid with a big box of crayons. She uses all kinds of different colors."

Yes, Crumpecker says, she takes rainbow notes. If she’s writing in blue and something leaps out at her, she might grab a red or black pen to set it apart.

Medicine, she found, helps writing. Sometimes it’s life or death stuff, grist for a story. And you get a new vocabulary, phrases such as "insensible losses"—water lost from breathing or through the skin—a medical term, a metaphor and, eventually, the title of the poem she read to an audience in Ohio after it placed second in the national William Carlos Williams poetry contest.

But even more, writing helps medicine.

"Especially in family medicine, it is a narrative, a story," Crumpecker says. "Patients are telling you who they are as a person. People don’t just say, ‘I have diabetes because I lost faith in God last year.’ But it may be their story. The cultural competency curriculum here emphasizes asking what do you think is wrong, what do you call your problem."

It’s in the details, Crumpecker says. She could be talking about writing but she means medicine. "I have a soft spot in my heart for our frailties and weakness," she adds. "They make us human."

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