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Omaha Magazine

What To Be, What Not To Be: Ryan Boyland Wants It All

Dec 30, 2021 11:47AM ● By Tara Spencer
ryan boyland headshot

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Ryan Boyland noted that while there are doctors who are writers, and writers who are doctors, they are typically only known for being good at one. 

“I want to be good at both,” said the 25-year-old UNMC student. 

Boyland didn’t plan on being a writer. While attending Bellevue East High School, he was most interested in math, science, and sports. While he quickly added that he was not good at the latter, he excelled at the first two, earning him the title of valedictorian when he graduated.  

It wasn’t until he started at Harvard University that his interest in the artistic world was piqued. He had seen various spoken word artists performing online before, but Canadian poet Shane Koyczan made the deepest impression. 

Boyland said the piece he saw, “To This Day,” wasn’t meant for slam poetry, or for the page. “He combined music and poetry and visual art to tell a story.” 

A video of Koyczan performing the piece for a TED Talk makes the appeal clear. The poet discusses how society wants people to define themselves at an early age. This is something that Boyland is figuring out. 

His concentration was in neurobiology with a minor in astrophysics. He also studied German and was in a boxing club, which inadvertently ended up feeding his interest in performing poetry. 

At a college activities fair, Boyland was trying to recruit members for the boxing club when he ran into a friend who encouraged him to attend a meeting of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard. He was resistant. “I’m like, I don’t sing. Absolutely not. And they said, ‘OK, one, there’s free pizza…’ And I was like, all right, you should have led with that.” 

This exchange led to Boyland eventually becoming president of the group, though he maintains that he is not a good singer. His primary role was performing dramatic readings, poetry, or monologues in between songs, connecting them to create one cohesive production.

However, Boyland largely honed his spoken word skills at open mics. His first performance of this type was for an event on campus honoring Black women. Despite having given speeches and presentations before, this was different. 

“I was shaking like a leaf,” he said. “I was wearing a suit that was probably two sizes too big...and I had no idea how to deliver a poem or really even how to write at that point in time.”

Despite his insistence that the poem was “terrible,” he remembered looking up from the sheet of paper to see the crowd slowly rising in a standing ovation. 

“I promptly went out into the hallway and collapsed,” he said. “I didn’t pass out, but out of all the things I’ve done, the places I’ve been, experiences I’ve had, I’ve never had that level of adrenaline rush before.”

Growing up as an Air Force kid, he had been to a lot of places, from Florida to Colorado to Germany. Boyland now lives in Bellevue while attending UNMC, where he is currently in his third year, or phase two. While performing on a stage in front of a crowd is daunting, medical school has its own set of challenges.

Boyland recalled one instance where a person came in for a routine procedure that took a turn for the worse. As he was asking a family member questions about the patient to determine treatment options, they broke down. “It felt terrible that I was the person who is sharing this time with this family member while their loved one is very near death,” he said. “It’s a strange position to be put in…As a med student, being in those spaces, in a lot of ways you’re expected to be there learning, but from the perspective of the patient, you are providing patient care.”

Boyland sees the medical profession as being twofold: “I think there’s the laughing and the joking and people are kind of happy that they’re providing care...And then there’s the darker aspect of it.”

To deal with that, some medical professionals find an outlet in writing, such as the Seven Doctors Project, or a more informal Friday writing class Boyland attends when he has time. He also continues to perform when he can, often at The Down Under Lounge open mics with Aly Peeler, who considers Boyland to be “phenomenal” and one of her favorite poets. 

Nebraska State Poet Matt Mason, who worked with Boyland through Nebraska Writers Collective, also had high praise for the young writer. Mason wrote in an email that Boyland is “an impressive and dedicated writer.” 

“He’s the type of person who came to almost every reading, attended any writing workshops, and was clearly interested just in being a better writer,” Mason said, adding that this made him a natural choice to recruit as a teaching artist, working as a coach for the Louder Than a Bomb: Great Plains program at Central High School. While time constraints didn’t allow Boyland to continue, Mason said he has been a great help on smaller projects, “including work in correctional facilities and as a substitute coach at schools.”

Boyland writes and performs whenever he can. He’s also working on a book of quotes from his fellow classmates that highlight the humorous side of medicine, though he said the darkness still shows itself in some of the thoughts.

“Part of what I’ve heard from other physicians is that the opportunity to reflect on what you’ve seen needs to happen,” he said. His ability and skill at looking inward and expressing himself may be what helps Boyland excel in both his writing and medical careers. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann


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