To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,
To raise the genius and to mend the heart,
To make mankind in conscious virtue bold.
—Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
As a longtime nurse and frequent patient, I feel as if I’ve lived years of my life in doctors’ offices, hospital rooms, and clinics. Much of that time has been spent in waiting rooms, often among strangers who, like me, are fueled by a mix of anxiety, concern, and anticipation.
I was vividly reminded of these experiences while reading Dorothy Woodman’s poem, “The Waiting,” (Intima, Spring 2013). In it, Woodman describes waiting rooms as a place full of “spectral forms” and “frozen shards” in which “time barely touches” and “clocks break down and weep.” By depicting the waiting room as an almost otherworldly and ethereal setting, Woodman perfectly conveys the sense of limbo felt by patients and visitors, many of who are trapped between fear (of illness, complications, misdiagnosis) and hope (for remedies, healing, advice).
However, the way we see and understand waiting rooms is gradually changing. As I discuss in “Humanity in Medicine: Robert Frost and the Medical Applications of Poetry,” (Intima, Spring 2015), literature and poetry are increasingly being used to help humanize these impersonal places and decrease the stress and anxiety of waiting to be called inside. This practice, commonly known as “narrative medicine,” is a nascent but growing field. Joan Cusack Handler, the editor of The Waiting Room Reader, Vol I: Stories to Keep You Company (2009), which has been distributed to over 300 waiting rooms in 63 hospitals, says the following about this method: “Basically, the aim is to soothe people and help reduce stress. That’s one of the things literature and poetry does. It captures real life in vivid terms, transports us to another place and distracts us from the painful reality that we are in right now” (as cited in Aplin, 2013).
In addition to the psychological and emotional benefits, reading or listening to descriptive language is proven to lower blood pressure, improve physical health, reduce visits to the doctor’s office, and boost the immune system (Garbarini, 2004; Stuckey & Nobel, 2010). Scholars have also begun encouraging doctors to gain more insight from their patients through narrative writing, especially poetry. According to Dr. Rita Charon, director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and co-editor of Literature and Medicine, “With narrative competence, physicians can reach and join their patients in illness, recognize their own personal journeys through medicine, acknowledge kinship with and duties toward other health care professionals, and inaugurate consequential discourse with the public about health care” (as cited in Encke, 2011).
Regardless of their backgrounds, almost any reader can enjoy, ponder, reflect on, and devour poems. Today, some of the most prominent programs and initiatives include Poems in the Waiting Room (PitWR), Poems While You Wait, Addenbrooke’s Arts, Poetry in the Halls, and CavanKerry Press, among others. If your hospital or clinic doesn’t offer a poetry program, you should consider discussing a poem with your doctor that relates to your illness, encouraging hospital staff to take book donations to be added into the waiting room and/or bringing your own poetry books and writing supplies during visits. That way, you’ll spend your time at the doctor’s office being stimulated and inspired. In fact, your future health may depend on it.
Agodon, K. R. (2004). Small Knots. Cincinnati, Ohio: Cherry Grove Collections.
Aplin, B. C. (2013, February 28). Poetry for patients and their families. Poets & Writers. Retrieved from http://www.pw.org/content/poetryforpatientsandtheir_families http://www.pw.org/content/poetry_for_patients_and_their_families.
Encke, J. (2011, October 7). Taking its pulse: Poetry in the context of narrative medicine. Eoagh. Retrieved from http://eoagh.com/?p=554#_ftn8 http://eoagh.com/?p=554#_ftn8
Garbarini, N. (2004). Heartbeat poetry. Scientific American, 291(4): 30-32.
Stuckey, H., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2): 254-263. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/
Debbie McCulliss, RN, MS, CAPF, CJI, is a science-medical writer and Certified Applied Poetry Facilitator whose focus is on writing for medical, nursing, mental-health and the lay public. She writes a monthly column on body narrative for The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Her publications appear in Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health (2012), Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (2011), and the Journal of Poetry Therapy. McCulliss's piece, "Humanity in Medicine: Robert Frost and the Medical Applications of Poetry" appears in the Spring 2015 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine