Category Archives: poetry & medicine contests

Medicine & Metaphors: Stories Humanize Darkness

Listening to stories

Since my own surgery two years ago, I have been charting a new course and along with that a new life. Of course, my family and friends have heard my story countless times about my dreams or visions when I was in a coma for nearly 9 days. What’s clear to me now is that so many others have a need to tell their story of illness or an event that stops many dead in their tracks just as my bypass surgery did.

I continue to receive stories from many who are stating to the best of their ability their unvarnished truths. What many seem to be saying is clear: “Listen to me. Hear my story. Something is happening to me. I can’t make sense out of it or, the only story I can think of to explain it scares me. Can you help me tell a better story or one that will cause me less stress.”

As a result of these unanswered questions and with encouragement and support from, Booth Chilcutt, the director of the Sumter County Cultural Commission in Sumter, South Carolina, I decided to add to the annual South Carolina Humanities Festival’s functions a call for stories and poetry on illness. For sure, I can add testimony that reconfirms that writing or blogging helps gain a sense of personal control and enables a patient, like myself to take responsibility for my life. A key component of any recovery is to be surrounded on a daily basis with friendship and love. Out of this experience, an individual can jointly shape a new narrative.

In a few weeks I will be sharing with my university students in an English 285 course, Themes in Medicine & Literature, the writings of physician-writers like Anton Chekhov, John Keats, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman and others who understand this intersection of illness and narrative. After all, all the elements of a story are readily available to any doctor or nurse: plot, protagonist, antagonist, setting, dialogue, and theme.

Recently, David Lauderdale, a friend and veteran reporter for The Island Packet in Hilton Head, South Carolina, wrote about the plans for this scheduled illness writing event. For more about this click here.

Send me your stories.

Heart-broke in Atlanta

As we get older storytelling gets better with the passing years. After all, personal narratives are a singular way in which individuals can give some meaning to what they experience. As a writer and educator, I am now encouraging individuals who are experiencing illness or who have had an event related to illness to write their story or poem. All of this is part of a Narrative Medicine initiative that I established in South Carolina following my own heart event two years ago. Click here for details found on the University of South Carolina Sumter webpage.

Narrative medicine is about sharing a story and it suggests something that is organic. Our stories are always shifting and they often reinforce the need to stay in touch with emotions and to develop what Dr. Jack Coulehan director of the Institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society and Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University calls “emotional resilience.”

Dr. Coulehan is an ardent evangelist and believer in the value of poetry in medicine, for both physicians and their patients.

This story forwarded by my friend, Merrill Pasco, an architect in Hilton Head Island is chalk full of emotional grit and such resilience.

Drove up to Buckhead April Fool’s for x-rays and desanguination, multiple betadine baths, and a few beers and angst with firstborn and dear friend. Reported at 5:30 a.m. for body shave, intubation – more tubes than available holes a la Louis Grizzard, (an Atlanta author who survived open-heart surgery and authored “ They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat”) anesthesia embarkation, more punctures and ports, lung deflation, 90 minute heart halt, and through the-ribs valve job by robotic surgeon Murphy: a 3-angle grind, ported and polished for maximum flow. Woke at five in ICU with a jar of morphine for 24-hour detubation and echo protocol, somewhat surprised to be alive and with no memories of the white light. Moved to salt-free cardiac ward pain-free for two nights and back to motel for a couple of nights under my son Hansell and his girl friend, Jen’s care with anchovy pizza, Chinese take-out, and an Easter egg hunt with the motel staff. God Bless medicare.

Send me more stories.

Poetry and Medicine: A Natural Union

Kudos to UK’s Warwick Medical School for their successful 2011 Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prizes awarded last month. Their efforts culminated in the publication of an Anthology of the 46 award winning and commended poems. Michael Henry, Cheryl Moskowitz and Sandy Goldbeck-Wood were the Open International Winners; the NHS Winners were Paula Cunningham, Wendy French and Johanna Emeney. In the Open section, of the 20 commended poems, 1 each from Canada and New Zealand, and 7 from the USA. In all, there were over 1500 entries.

Special recognition should be given to Donald Singer, professor of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics at Warwick University and his campus colleague, Michael Hulse of the Warwick Writing Program.

According to an article in the Guardian, “This tradition of the poet-patient is one of the inspirations for the Hippocrates prize, a global competition which offers a £15,000 prize fund for poems on a medical theme. The awards, founded in 2009, also honour the long history of the doctor-poet… Both John Keats (1795-1821) and a British Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges (1844-1930), qualified as doctors but were forced towards authorship by illness.”

For sure, there’s an increasing number of health professionals who recognize the benefits associated with poetry in medicine. Dr. Danielle Ofri, physician and co-founder of the celebrated Bellevue Literary Review, has written about her experiences.

“When I make rounds with my students and interns, I always try to sneak in a poem at the end. I think poetry is important because it helps convey the parts of the medical experience that don’t make it into textbooks. It’s important because it teaches creative thinking—something of immense value to doctors.”

Warwick has not had any need to look across the Atlantic to the rising interest in Medical Humanities programs or poetry in medicine courses. The school is already announcing plans for the 2012 International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine scheduled for May 12, 2012.

Key themes will include: history of interactions between medicine, health and poetry; impact of health and disease on the writings of the professional poet; poetry as therapy; the nature of the body, and anatomy; the history, evolution, current and future state of medical science; the nature and experience of tests; use of poetry in health professional training, the experience of doctors, nurses and other staff in hospitals and in the community; the experience of patients, families, friends and caregivers in these situations; the experiences of acute and long-term illness and dying, of birth, of cure and convalescence; the patient journey; the nature and experience of treatment with herbs, chemicals and devices used in medicine.

For more information please click here.