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Poet, former nurse teaches how humanities add soul to medicine

Poems prove to be powerful medicine. That’s what Veneta Masson found as she witnessed her sister struggle with cancer for three years. As her condition worsened, Masson found she ran out of comforting things to say. She felt exhausted by the effort of it all.
Then she realized only a poem would do, so she began sending various ones. As a poet, she decided to write some of her own.  Masson shared one of them titled “Poem of the Week” with faculty, staff and students attending her workshop, The Poetry of Caregiving, recently held at MUSC.
“There were things I couldn’t say to her, so I’d send her a poem,” she said, explaining how the poems helped her express deep feelings she couldn’t get across otherwise. They obviously touched her sister as well. After her death, Masson found many of them in her sister’s scrapbook.
Author of the poetry collection “Clinician’s Guide to the Soul,” Masson shared her insights about the value of humanities in health care education and how it helps to counter what is known in the medical literature as “ethical erosion” ——a loss of idealism, empathy and morality that physicians sometimes experience when seeing patients as diseases more than as people.
Tom Smith, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Academic Excellence/Writing Center (CAE/WC), said the purpose of the session was to stimulate a dialogue and to engage the community in an ongoing effort to share stories of illness and healing. The presentation, arranged by the CAE/WC, was sponsored by the S.C. Humanities Council and the Division of Education and Student Life with the support of the College of Nursing.
The center has set up a Web site where people can share stories of illness and healing, signed or anonymous at
Masson said she applauds such efforts. The following tips highlight some of her suggestions about using the humanities as part of the healing arts.

Write for insight.
Masson recited a poem “If you could just lose weight” that explored her frustration in giving the same advice repeatedly to patients who ignored it, despite the obvious benefits they’d receive if they followed the advice. The poem helped her understand her own fears in talking about this issue with patients, and how to be more compassionate in understanding the perspectives of the patients receiving that advice.
“That’s a way that writing for me has taken me to a place that I didn’t know I could go,” she said of the poem. “It helped me get a deeper insight into what I mean when I so casually prescribe something.”
She also likes the idea of using “parallel charts,” where medical professionals keep a second record of their encounters with patients that is more detailed than the traditional medical chart. The record can include impressions and dialogues. Often this kind of writing can bring a kind of reflection and processing to the experience that the health professional wouldn’t get otherwise.

Give yourself permission to write.
Health professionals don’t have to be writers to write. At various seminars she’s led, she has heard that some participants are afraid to write or dislike poetry. She encourages them to take another perspective. Just as there are all types of music, there are all kinds of writing and poetry. From her experience, including serving as a registered nurse for 35 years, the writing adds a richness to the practice of medicine that can counter the impersonal aspects of high technology and hurriedness so often present in medicine.
Use poems as battery charges.
It can be easy to get burned out in the health care profession. Masson said it’s good to remember that down deep science can only take us so far in dealing with the serious issues in life. “The carefully crafted and condensed language works like a battery to keep you charged up,” she said. “Poetry doesn’t give you just the facts. It gives you insights as well.”

Create a memory wall.
Post poems that resonate with you on the “walls of your memory,” she said. She began this practice after hearing a story about a prisoner of war who was allowed no books of any kind. He kept himself sane by recalling the poems he had memorized. Masson said it made her think what she’d be able to pull up if she were in a similar situation. She began to post poems she loved on cards and started memorizing them.
“I hope for you that there may be a poem that comes along that resonates with you, and you’ll post it on your wall,” she said.

Everyone loves a story.
Writing and sharing poetry helps to tune health professionals into the stories playing out around them. Masson began writing essays as a way to process the intensity of her experiences in a small, inner-city clinic in Washington, D.C. that she helped to found.   

“These experiences had to have somewhere to go.”
Masson said she has left poems out in the waiting room and passed many along to colleagues to address a particular crisis being faced. Sometimes patients have given her their poems. Sharing stories finds the common ground between people. Sometimes there’s not a pill to be given out, she said.
“It’s more complicated than that. Illness is a human experience.”
For information on Masson, visit

Poem of the Week
A friend’s sage advice:
   Just do what you can do
   on a given day.
So on days I can’t pray
or pick up the phone
I send a poem.
   Poem of the Weak,
   I once accidentally called it.

I’ve sent Carver, Frost
Sarton, Levertov
Pastan, Olds and others—
my emissaries
my cloud of witnesses.

Let these poets earn their keep.
Let them speak for me.
Let them enter the house
haunted by illness.
Let them open the doors
shut against fear.

For in trouble
the poem is strong medicine
like the wind that blows
where it wills,
like the serpent of brass
set upon a pole
in the wilderness.

Reprinted with permission from the author, Veneta Masson

Missed the workshop? Check out the poet's favorite reads
Stories—whether they be fiction or memoir, prose or poetry—offer health professionals common ground on which to enlarge our understanding of health and illness, forge partnerships with other health professions and improve clinical practice said poet Veneta Masson.

Web sites to explore:
List of favorite readings from the Maine Humanities Council’s lit-med program

The NYU Literature, Arts & Medicine Database:
It is “an annotated multimedia listing of prose, poetry, film, video and art that was developed to be a…resource for teaching and research in medical humanities, and  for use in health/pre-health, graduate and undergraduate liberal arts and social science settings.”

Pulse Magazine: It is a weekly online publication featuring personal stories of health care to foster the humanistic practice of medicine.

Books for the bedside:
Some of her favorite books include the following.
Broyard, Anatole. “Intoxicated by My Illness,” by Anatole Broyard.
“Tenderly Lift Me—Nurses Honored, Celebrated, and Remembered” by Jeanne Bryner.
“The Healing Art—A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry”  by Rafael Campo.                            
“A Life in Medicine—A Literary Anthology” editted by Robert Coles and Randy Testa.
“The Heart’s Truth—Essays on the Art of Nursing” editted by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer.
For the complete list, visit

Friday, Sept. 17, 2010

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